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Particulate Matter– a Lesson in Surrender


images…This essay is dedicated to anyone who lost their home or business to forest fire this summer.  Or whose property is still in peril.  It was originally published in the Mars Hill Review.

I forgot about this essay until the smoke from the fires in Washington and Idaho put me on a kind of house arrest this week.  All the windows were closed, every fan was on, and I longed for the fresh Montana air that I so love.  It reminded me of a perilous fire season in the early 2000′s and I searched through my files until I found this essay.  The baby in it is now a sophomore in high school, the five year old, a sophomore in college.  It was in the early days of my motherhood and I felt raw and scared and protective.  There were forest fires raging close to our beloved Montana home, and I was beside myself with the feeling of helplessness.  I was still mostly a city transplant.  I wasn’t completely resigned to what I now accept as the natural order of things in the wilderness.  Thankfully, the man-made structures in our valley escaped destruction that summer.  And thankfully, back here in 2015, the smoke cleared out with last night’s rain, the windows are open, and the air is fresh.  We can all breathe deeply again.  Reading this essay brings me back to a time when anything was possible, good or bad, and I was new in the field of surrender.  Fifteen years later, I am glad I know that to be in the “flow” is simply to know that there is a “flow” in the first place.  Enjoy!  

Particulate Matter    by Laura Munson  (written in 2000, published in the Mars Hill Review, Issue 22)

Montana is burning, again.  Outside is a slur of orange and floating ash that looks like we are living on the set of a Sci-fi B-movie from the Sixties.  The green grocer says it looks like a Jehovah’s Witness church marquee come true:  the world is ending.  The world is ending and all the Hippies are walking around wearing gas masks as if they will be the chosen race.  The farmers are harvesting their alfalfa crops, lungs and all.  I guess they figure they will meet their maker first.  To me it looks like life inside an old sepia-toned photograph with no one smiling except the baby.

My baby doesn’t know not to smile either.  He is ten weeks old—as old as the fires that burn in Lolo, Werner Peak, Moose Mountain, Big Creek near Glacier National Park and on and on.  One fire burns one thousand acres and counting, just eleven miles away from our house.  Another burns 14,166 acres, northwest of a town called Wisdom.  I close the newspaper and hold my baby tight.  Please God, don’t let our valley burn.download

AM radio has political pundits spouting off against environmentalists—mad that forests have not been thinned in the name of owls and small rodents, their threatened extinction a small price to have paid in exchange for the dozens of houses that burned in last summer’s fires, and the 900 houses state-wide that wait, evacuated, their denizens on cots in high school gymnasiums.  Others think it’s Conspiracy Theory—that the feds are not fighting the fire with the man-power they could in the interest of turning a profit on salvage logging in land otherwise protected as endangered habitat.  Some say the firefighters are heroes.  Some say they are “money-grubbing opportunists” in an impossible war.  Some say that they should let the fires burn—that the only thing that will stop blazes of this magnitude is snow or days and days of heavy rain, and that the millions of dollars being spent on fire lines and air attack is not only a waste of money, but a serious threat to watersheds, and renders the forest less resilient to fire in the end.  Old timers I know who have seen fires rip through this valley before just lift their eyes unto the hills and nod the way you might if Ghandi was your commencement speaker—Ghandi, the same man who said, “Suffering is the badge of the human race.”  My baby sucks and rests and searches for his thumb and actually says “Goo.”

I find myself walking around the kitchen with a fly swatter, taking care of tiny black fates– things I can control.  And I find refuge there.  I can’t see the flames, but I see on the news that in one day the local fire– the Moose fire– has expanded from 4,700 acres to 14,000 acres, with one flame front running four miles in four hours, another cruising three-quarters of a mile in less than twelve minutes.  Even if I could see the flames, my garden hose is short.  I go out to my smoky garden and spend an hour watering a thirty-foot long by six-foot wide perennial bed, and two pots of tomatoes.  I put my faith in my still-green tomatoes.  I have to.  I cannot afford to sap my faith in tomatoes with my fear of fire.  They say they could rage until the October cool-down and it is only August.  They say that fires this big have minds of their own.images (5)

There is skittish solace in the mundane things that need to happen whether our twenty acres of Big Sky are consumed in flames or not.  The baby needs to be fed.  The toilet paper roll replaced.  The dishes washed.  The peanut butter and jelly sandwich assembled for the five year old who will play hopscotch at summer camp today, unimpressed with the ratio of particulate matter to breathable air.  I try to ignore the hot wind that bends the cat tails in the marsh behind our house that in two months has gone from canoe-able pond with mating frogs and foraging Sandhill cranes and resting loons, to a dry, cracked vestige of grasshoppers and confused snails.  I try to ignore the fire bombers that drone overhead back and forth all day, driven by what I must deem as “heroes” in a war that we can only imagine.

I hold my baby and smell his head and think of all of us, living in the mundane despite the magnitude of mortality and belief and fear and faith.  I think of the tiny things that weave us together that we don’t think to talk about, but that engage the moral majority of our minutes here on earth.  Buttons, cups of coffee, socks and shoes.  And I want to cling to these things.  I want to dwell in the community of controllable things.  And instead of feeling their burden, I want to find the blessing there.  Not just because I am scared of fire.  Not just because I look into my baby’s eyes and wonder if our future will be long together, come fire or disease or what may.  But because the flames I cannot see remind me to love what I can love.  Or at the very least, to take the funnel clouds they leave in their skyward wake—sometimes climbing 40,000 feet– as part of the mystery that implores me to be content with my little place on earth.  My humanity.  My chores.  My grocery list.  But the smoke…the unseen flames…must I love them too?  Jim Harrison writes in his Cabin Poem:  I’ve decided to make up my mind/ about nothing, to assume the water mask,/ to finish my life disguised as a creek,/ an eddy, joining at night the full,/ sweet flow, to absorb the sky,/ to swallow the heat and cold, the moon/ and the stars, to swallow myself/ in ceaseless flow.

I struggle with this flow.  I struggle with my community of seens and unseens.
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Outside the wind picks up; it feels gratuitous.  Sinister.  I drop my garden hose, short as it is, and return to the cool, stale-aired house, windows shut tight for weeks now.  I pace like a caged cat, peering out the windows at the pitching and heaving lodge pole pines.  Lodge poles need the high heat of forest fire in order for their cones to drop their seeds.  If the lodge poles could pray, they would be praying for this exact wind.  Am I to accept our destruction for the sake of lodge poles?  Am I any kind of environmentalist—any kind of faithful servant of the Creator, or steward of Creation, if this is my prayer:  Please God, make the wind stop?  Am I to be bound only to the mundane by my faith?  And accept the rest as Higher Order?  The Natural Order of Things?  My own fate therein?  I am a twentieth century woman:  isn’t there something They can do about this?  Some button to push…some button to un-push?

You see, somewhere in this “flow,” I am a mother; it is my instinct to protect.  I know that for me to attempt to fight the fire is fruitless.  What is my fight, then?  My meditation?  My prayer?  Can I be like Arjuna the warrior and fight, as the Hindu God Vishnu instructs, without thoughts of “fruits,” “with spirit unattached?”  Can I find Vishnu’s “meditation centered inwardly and seeking no profit…fight?”  Is my fight to be simply in the preservation of the tiny things that have been proven win-able in the ten digits of my human hands?  Sure Job had to give it all up, but must we all?  Must we at least be willing?  I scrub, I brush, I boil and bake—little strokes of faith—little battles won.  But I am not serene.  I am not surrendered.

I struggle with surrender.

The writer Annie Dillard in her Teaching a Stone to Talk finds God in a rock.  Is my Creator one who puts a rock, a lodge pole, before me?  Before my children?  Before this bounteous 20 acres of Montana in which we play and work and garden and grieve and pray and find home?  What kind of dirty trick is this that we are to love our place on earth—nurture it with all our might, but be willing to give it all up at the same time?  Wendell Berry in his Mad Farmer’s Manifesto says, “take all that you have and be poor.”  I don’t want to be poor spiritually or otherwise, if it means my land—the place where my children fly kites and catch frogs, where my husband and I have conceived our children, seen our first Northern Lights, built a Mountain Bluebird nesting house that the same bluebird returns to every year and whom my daughter has named, Hello Friend—if all this is to be reduced to char.images (2)

The apostle Paul says, “…we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”  I am groaning.  But I have words.  I want rain.  I want windlessness.  I want.  I want.  I want.  Perhaps it is this wanting that the Spirit translates to the Divine.  The Buddhist tradition says that we will not experience release from our suffering as long as we have desires.  So am I a complete spiritual flunky if I admit that I feel deep desire to preserve my place here on earth– that I feel an entitlement to my place?  Just how much should we grin and bear?  Or groan and bear?  What can we pray for and remain faithful?

I realize that there are no finite answers to these questions.  But it helps to know that I am not alone in them.  Tell me then, Humanity, that I can pray for the wind to stop, and then after that…in my utter befuddlement, pray to the sweet and ruthless flow of Creation not only for tomatoes to grow in my pots, but for excellent tomatoes to grow in my pots!  Tell me that the Creator is both Lord of wind and tiny things.  And that we are not to be limited in the extent of our wants—our fears, our passion plays.  Please, I beseech you, Humanity, do not tell me that I am entitled only to my sense of faith and my sense of love but not to a loved thing on earth—destined to accept the burning of my house, or say, disease in my child, as if the wind is more necessary than a child.  The wind is created.  The trees are created.  A child is created.  My house is created.  Tomatoes are created.  My daily schedule of car pools and play dates and meals and laundry are created.  Is there a hierarchy to the importance of created things?  Am I at least as dear to the Creator as a lodge pole pine?  Tell me that there is a prayer for all of us.  Because all of us, on some level, matter.

My five-year old daughter comes in to show me that her first tooth has come out.  If I am to surrender to forest fire, tell me, oh Creator, oh Humanity, that this tooth matters.  I hold the tooth in my palm and smile at her and she obliterates me with three fell swoops:  “I wonder if God likes the fire.  I wonder if the fire likes itself.  I’m going to go outside to play now.”  Maybe surrender is not a letting go, but an acceptance.

A going in, even.

images (3)Tell me then, oh time-travelers in this wondrous and heartbreaking “flow,” that not only does the mundane matter, but that it is holy.  Tell me that we are in this holy pickle together—that in your ultimate helplessness on this planet, you cling to what you can help.  That you too contemplate the advantages of brushing your teeth before or after coffee, almost daily.  Before or after orange juice.  Before or after sex.  Tell me that you too keep the buttons that come in a tiny envelope, safety-pinned to your fine garments but with absolutely no intention of ever using them.  Tell me that sometimes you notice that you incorporate the use of your forehead when you are folding towels.  And that in that instant, you laugh out loud.  Tell me that you laugh out loud.  I want to know that we are both laughing.  From Peoria, Illinois, to burning Montana, to Massachusetts two hundred years ago.  It is the echo of that laughter which will save me at three in the morning, breast-feeding my boy, watching lighting striking, slicing through the smoky night.  And prayer, I suppose.  But after prayer, it is the echo of humanity, not God, I am waiting for.  I want to know that I am not the only one pacing alone in my “smoky house.”

Tell me all this, and then tell me that the Creator, to whom time must certainly not be a linear stretch as it is to we mere mortal peons, must on some level restrict himself/herself/itself enough to the created hill-of-beans of my mind, and find mercy.  Tell me that the execution of these tiny things are our greatest acts of faith.  Because they are our fight.  Our meditations.  Our prayers.  Prayers to the moment.  Prayers to our futures.  Prayers without ceasing.

Most of all, tell me that our Creator loves us for the fears we have that lead us to the clingy worship of tiny things in the first place.  Tell me that you believe the Creator gives us the minutia to help us deal with the Everything Else—to find our connection to the rest of Creation.  That the Creator designed us to need the community of tiny things.  Tell me that the Creator invites all of it, like a parent does a child’s wants for bubble gum in one breath, and the cure for cancer in the next.  And that we can both pray for the wind to stop and for the rains to come.  And the fires to end.  And our children’s lives to be long.  And then in the next breath…the next groan…pray for plump, juicy, hose-fed, sun-kissed tomatoes every summer, smoky or not.images (1)

—2000, Laura Munson, Montana

Note:  If you are travelling to Montana this summer or fall, please enjoy our beautiful wilderness which is full of smoke-free and wide open roads and trails, valleys, rivers, and lakes!   

***My Fall Haven Writing Retreats are full with wait lists.

Join me at Mii Amo Spa at Enchantment Resort, Sedona, AZ for three days of wellness and writing classes…September 17th – 20th, 2015

I will be leading rare one day writing workshops coast to coast this fall in private homes of Haven Alums:  (email for more info:  laura@lauramunsonauthor.com)

Boston: Oct. 1,2,3

San Francisco: Nov. 20, 21

Now booking Montana Haven Retreats for 2016:

February 24-28

June 1-5

June 15-19

Fall 2016 TBA

You do not have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker, hungry for your unique voice and stories! 

 

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My Next Happy

772Here’s a good question for you:  What do I have of value that I can offer the world…which would earn me a consistent living?  Here’s an essay that will show you one woman’s answer.

Inspired by The Next Happy, by Tracey Cleantis.  A book (and author) I love…and that will help you deconstruct what it is to be happy and apply it to your life!

As seen on Tracey Cleantis’ Blog:

What if there’s a whole world out there waiting for you to step into, tapping its fingers and toes in anticipation?  What if it’s been beckoning you for a very long time, courting you in your dreams, teasing you in snippets of conversation with surprise strangers who say things like take care or have a great day or how are you and really mean it, when some of the main players in your lives don’t?  What if you are more powerful than you could ever imagine and your ability to be happy is just as vast?  What if the thing that is keeping you away from your happiness and your power is something you can shake off and leave in the dust like a broken flip flop, even though it feels more like a cement boot?  What happened to your dreams?  And why aren’t they coming true?  Why aren’t you happy?

Five years ago, my oldest dream came true.  After devoting decades to the writing life in a small mountain town in Montana, tending my little family, I finally had a book published.  It had a message that a lot of people wanted to hear, which grew out of my apparently-rare reaction to a marital crisis…and suddenly I had a career as a writer and a speaker, touring the country, doing big media, and speaking at large conventions.   I was scared and excited and deeply happy.  I believed in my message:  we can create a life that works no matter what hardships we face, by powerfully choosing our emotional reaction to our lives, truly embracing what it is to stay in the present moment, and taking responsibility for our own happiness.

In order to effectively be its messenger, though, I needed an affirmation to repeat in my mind and keep close to my heart.  I chose this:  I give myself permission to be exactly who I am and have it be easy.  For the most part, it worked.  Intentional words have a way of doing that.  In that season of my life, I was happier and more grounded than I’d ever been.  I was making a difference in the world doing what I loved, my marriage and my family were resuscitated, life was joyful.

A few years later, everything changed.  Sadly, my marriage needed to end, and this time even more was at stake:  my financial stability and that of my children, my family orientation, my career.  It was a mean season of post-divorce with all arrows pointing toward losing my house, public shame, and personal misery.  The rug everyone warned me about was indeed ripped out from under me and I spun in the wind of chaos and fear.  I give myself permission to be exactly who I am and have it be easy felt as far away as the rug which once supported me.  Who was I exactly without my family intact?  What was intact?  Where was my power?  Where was my joy?  My gut told me that more than any time in my entire life, if I was going to find happiness again, I needed to mine the gold inside me.  And my fear was quelled by the fact that I’d been such a “miner” for a long time.  If I hadn’t been, who knows what would have happened.

So I asked myself a powerful question:  What do I have of value that I can offer the world…which would earn me a consistent living?  Being a New York Times best-selling author doesn’t mean you are guaranteed financial stability.  Speaking gigs required me to leave my children and they needed me at home in that time of uncertainty.  It was time to get very very real.  Or lose so much of what I’d created for myself and my children.  What did I possess that people needed, in the same way they seemed to crave my book’s message and my speaking topics?

Hell-bent to find my gold, I deconstructed the questions from my speaking events and interviews.  And I realized that the number one question I was asked had nothing to do with marriage or crisis.  It had to do with Voice.  Story.  Self-acceptance.  I had written my way through a difficult time, and other people wanted to do the same.  There were people all over the globe dying to tell their stories, but they felt stuck and even desperate.

Over and over again I heard:  “Why does my story matter?  How do I find the words to tell it?  Or the time?  Is my voice even interesting or unique?  Who cares anyway…it’s all been told before.”grief

Over and over I said, “Yes, your voice is unique!  And so is your story!  No one has the same voice or the same story—it’s not possible.  And no one can tell it like you.  It matters to the world because it matters to you!”  But the lifeline that came so easily and naturally to me, was terrifying for most people to grasp…even though they wanted to, deeply.  I longed to swoop up all those seekers, bring them to Montana, and teach them what I’d been practicing for years with all my might.  To help them sit at that intuitive intersection of heart and mind and craft that is writing.  To help them know what I know:  The act of writing is a highly transformational and therapeutic tool, regardless if anyone even reads it!wf

In a moment of totally clarity I saw it:  There was a serious hole in our human existence…and I knew a way to fill it.  What if I actually did bring people to Montana, gave them the solace of the mountains, lakes, and rivers, communion with other seekers, and plugged them into a design that would have them find their voice, their stories, and set them free?  What if I led retreats?  Not just for writers, but for anyone who wants to dig deeper into their self-expression through the written word.  There’s not a soul who wouldn’t benefit from that!

And then the inner critic came in.  What cred did I have?  I’d never led a retreat.  I hadn’t really been on many retreats.  Montana was far away for most people.  Why would they bother? But as I’d instructed so many to do, I remembered that the inner critic is just a scared child who needs a nap, and I cleared my head and came to my senses:  I had something that the world needed.  And any life-changing service to humanity is worth something in the realm of financial security.  Maybe retreats could be my way to re-invention, to have time to write again, to be exactly who I was…and yes, have it be easy.847

So I opened up my computer (and my heart), and a design for a five day retreat gushed out of me, as if it had indeed been waiting for me, tapping its fingers and toes.  There was the gold!  I mined all the things that made my writing practice work.  There would be guided writing prompts that interrupted the inner critic and invited people to play like children in the themes and stories of their lives.  There would be one-on-one mentoring with me.  The chance to give and receive feedback on projects, at all levels and genres.  There would be delicious nourishing group meals, and opportunities to get out of your head and into your bodies—long walks, yoga, horses—my three lifelines outside of writing that kept it balanced.  There would be time to write in solitude.  And lasting community long after the retreat in various forums and consulting opportunities.  A workshop, retreat, and community all in one.  Heaven.  So I called it something very close:  Haven.  Haven Writing Retreats.

Before my inner critic could wake up from her nap and tell me how delusional I was, I put it on Facebook:  “Anyone want to come on a writing retreat with me in Montana?”  And in two hours, twenty-four people signed up.

I had no place to hold Haven, no price point, no experience, and no team.  Four months later, I was leading a writing retreat that would soon be ranked in the top three writing retreats in the country.  Four years later, I lead eight retreats a year, have worked with almost four hundred people, and been featured on many radio shows and media venues for this powerful retreat experience that has changed lives over and over again.  It has certainly changed mine.  My life is stable.  My children are thriving.  And in it all, I fell in love with someone who meets me in a way I never knew possible.  I am happy.

It came from asking myself a simple question:  How can I serve the world by being exactly who I am?  By mining what I have to offer?  And offering it in the way only I can?

So…if you are staring down the barrel of a major life shift and the inevitable re-invention that must come from it, why not have your re-invention reflect your deepest truth, and your biggest dreams?  Ask yourself:  What makes me happy?  How do I already show up for it in my life?  How can I share that with the world?  If you do…you just might find your way to a world of happiness…by being exactly who you are.  You might find your Next Happy.

Montana February Haven Retreat, 2015 "I write in a solitude born out of community." -Terry Tempest Williams

Haven Retreats Montana 2015 Schedule
September 9-13 (full)
September 23-27 (only a few spaces left)
October 7-11 (full)
October 21-25 (only a few spaces left)

Now Booking for 2016:

February 24-28

June 1-5

June 15-19

 

 

 

 

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Unplugging (or: How many times do you check Facebook or your email in one hour? The truth hurts.)

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Haven Writing Retreats

September 9-13 (FILLING FAST)
September 23-27 (FILLING FAST)
October 7-11
October 21-25

…When you see a * it means I thought about checking FB or email. When you see a *** it means that I fought and lost.

as featured in Huffington Post 50

I do not have ADD or OCD. I’ve always been a highly focused, project-oriented person, and not a big fan of multi-tasking. I like to choose something, give it everything I’ve got, and then move on to the next thing. For the last five years, however, I have been writing four books. I don’t recommend this, unless you have a committed and long-term writing practice. *  I don’t really recommend it even if you do. It’s a fractured way of going about the writing life. But it’s what I had the heart for. Sort of an eeny meeny miney moe. Each one provided different oxygen and I am grateful for the stories they helped me breathe alive. I’ve completed two of these projects and am hoping they will see the light of day before too long. But in that fracture, I allowed something pretty corrosive to leak in: the internet. *

The internet is a writer’s friend and a writer’s enemy. It gives us community and support in an otherwise very solitary profession. Just ask my 4,000+ Facebook friends. (Most of them are writers I’ve never met before, but if they asked me to help get the word out about their writing, my answer would probably be, “of course.”) *  It’s a generous platform, especially for writers. But the internet is also a big problem for writers. We’d be fools not to use its powerful tentacles. Blogs, guest blogs, interviews, videos, podcasts, webinars…makes my brain hurt just thinking about all the ways I haven’t used it, but even the most internet savvy writer out there still lies in bed wondering if they’ve done enough to promote their work and if they’ve given their stories the oxygen they deserve once they have life. I’m fairly sure there isn’t a writer out there who at the end of the day says, “Yup—I did it all. I am fully cyberly self-expressed. Check.” ***

I miss the days when the only buttons I pushed were on my keyboard, writing books and essays. I never had leaks. Maybe the muse would pause for a cup of tea or a walk with the dog, but when I wasn’t mothering, I was pretty much writing. It was heaven. Now, approximately every thirty seconds (I timed myself), I think about the internet. That email I forgot to respond to. *That blog post I should write.  *Oh, and I wonder who’s got an interesting article up on Facebook that might inspire the muse, or how my friend’s new pug is today on Instagram, * or what witty thing that poet I follow is Tweeting about.  * I’ve let the internet fracture what was already a fractured writing practice, divided by four books. I lead writing retreats where people unplug and write for five days. I need to do the same. I need to reclaim my focus and luxuriate in it.

It’s not like I’m not writing. It’s that I’m writing in too many directions. A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed a good old fashioned lock down. Somewhere with no wifi. Somewhere I don’t recognize. In a place I am not responsible for. I needed to remind myself who I am when I’m totally focused on one large project.  * So I chose one of my books which needed to be edited from top to bottom, and drove to a remote town in Montana to a cabin on a country road called Sweathouse Lane. And that’s what I did. Sweat. (Blood and tears included). I brought enough food for a few days, my laptop, my journal, and a change of clothes. That’s it. I made sure my cellphone wouldn’t get service. * I made sure I couldn’t get anywhere near the internet. And I worked. For eighteen solid hours I worked on one…project.

At first it was sort of a Goldie Locks feeling. I found myself pacing around the kitchen. No one to interrupt me. Nothing for me to interrupt. I sat on the living room couch. Too soft. Sat at the kitchen table. Too hard. Sat on the front porch. Too hot. And so, as I often do, I took to the bed. Basically, I didn’t move from that bed except for ablutionary reasons, for eighteen hours. I couldn’t believe how freeing it felt. Without the temptation of the internet, *I was able to hold all 350 pages in my head and heart and balance it all until it felt stable. Whole.

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Whether or not you are a writer, I challenge you to sit down for one hour and write something…something inspiring with a good lesson at the end…even if it’s just for your eyes only…and notice how many times you think about going on the internet. * It might be one of the most powerful exercises of your life, because it might show you something about yourself and how your brain works. Where the leaks are. I’ve learned in this hour that I think about the internet when I’m pausing, or when I’m trying to find the courage to go deeper into my thoughts. That’s scary. Because it means that the internet has become my binkie. And that’s when I’m trying to focus. What would happen if I did this experiment when I wasn’t trying to focus? Say, stuck in gridlocked traffic. Or lying on the beach on a summer day, trying to relax. If we are constantly checking the internet, are we ever totally focused, never mind totally unwinding? Are we ever really taking a day off? Do we have to go to a remote cabin with no wifi in order to remember what it really is to pause? Or sit on a meditation mat? The ultimate challenge would be to see how many times you think about plugging in to the internet on a meditation mat! I’m too chicken to try that one.

When the Hindus are trying to separate from their thoughts and transcend worldly attachments they say “Neti Neti,” which is Sanskrit for not this, not this. In my attempts at meditation, I say “Neti, Neti” as much as I’m showing red asterisks here in this essay. I wonder if there’s an emoji for Neti Neti? *

I have simply got to make my time around computers more yogic. I have got to designate email time and social media time to definitive slots and take vows to observe them. Or my mind is going to become permanently fractured and my writing (and my life) will reflect it. For now, I’m going to take a walk with my dog. No phone. Neti Neti. * Neti.

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”– Thomas Merton

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Authors Supporting Authors: Q&A With Christine Carbo

2015 Haven Retreats:
September 9-13 (FILLING FAST)
September 23-27 (FILLING FAST)
October 7-11
October 21-25

11390215_10152771872081266_5713115019216739589_nIn my travels as a published author, I have found that writers who are writing are generous and kind to one another. Along the way they have given me face-to-face and long phone-calls-full of sage advice (Lee Woodruff, Dani Shapiro, Arielle Ford, Julie Metz, and so many others, they have shown up at my readings even when they were maxed out and busy, (Beth Hoffman), given me sensible gifts for the sustainable self like nesting pouches for key items (a signing pen, power point thumb drive, Advil, and reading glasses, because that’s how long it takes most of us to get published, (Pricilla Warner), agreed to meet me on the stage and ask mutual powerful questions in public with a naked heart in their hands (Kelly Corrigan, Jennifer Weigel), social media support in Tweets, Facebook posts, etc. (Nigella Lawson, Giada de Laurentiis, Patty Chang Anker, Sukey Forbes), and radio love (Dr. Christiane Northrup, Shelia Hamilton).

With Lee Woodruff at book signing.

With Lee Woodruff at book signing.

We all just say the same thing in our own way: pass it on. So when local author, Christine Carbo landed a two book deal with Simon and Schuster, not only did I run to her book party even though I was drinking from the firehose getting ready for my second June Haven Retreat, but I asked her if I could shine a light on her new book (and her writing process) on my blog. Writers must support each other. No matter what you care about deeply, I hope that you will be generous and kind, and take heart in the power of passing it on.  I hope this will inspire you!  yrs. Laura

Christine Carbo, debut crime-fiction author of THE WILD INSIDE, a gripping crime novel about the perilous, unforgiving intersection between man and nature, shares some thoughts about writing her first crime-fiction novel and the wild area that fuels her writing.

1) As a debut author, what has been the most exciting thing for you when it came to breaking into the traditional world of publishing?

Like many artists, I felt very vulnerable to put my work out to the world, and I always sensed that if and when I was signed on, that it would be the boost of confidence that would be most important and exciting for me. It turns out that that is true to a large degree, and in fact, I was over the moon when my agent was selling The Wild Inside because I had offers from two major publishers, which was more than I ever imagined. But ultimately, as cliché as this may sound, the most exciting thing for me has been getting that first real reader – the reader not needed for edits or feedback or reviews, the reader who simply writes a letter to you because they feel inspired to do so. Mine came from someone who received one of my galleys in a random galley give-away. She loved the story and wrote that she thought The Wild Inside had a poignancy like a movie she had been fond of for long time, in which a young man drowned, and because of that, a whole world of tragedy unfolded. She pointed out that sometimes all it takes is one human event to reverberate outward and affect many lives. The satisfaction and excitement to finally have that first real reader provide unsolicited comments was well worth all the hardships an aspiring author goes through to get that first work out there!

2) Living near a stunning national park and surrounded by the beauty and splendor of the location, as well as residing in the tight-knit communities of Montana, is the rural setting ideal for your characters? Do you find it more exciting than the big city life?

I don’t necessary find it more exciting than big city life. In fact, when I originally set out to write a crime thriller, I was concerned that when it came to “writing what you know,” I didn’t live in a dynamic, bustling, sexy city that exposed me to enough interesting criminal elements to pull off crime fiction. But, when I really began to pay attention to the area I live in and love, I began to see that it was full of interesting contrasts in terms of economic and environmental issues. And as far as crime goes, well there’s plenty of that no matter where you go, and my neck of the woods has no shortage. And don’t get me started on the number of serial killers in the Northwest!

And yes, the rural setting in The Wild Inside turned out to be an excellent match for my characters in many ways. Not only was I able to use the natural conflict of surrounding communities plagued by unemployment and sometimes drugs, and of small towns nestled against great patches of wilderness and all the wonders and dangers the wilderness has to offer, I was able to write about the place I love the most: the evocative and commanding Glacier Park. When I began to think of Glacier in terms of its haunting nature, I found it to be very dramatic and highly atmospheric. It became a living, breathing character for me, and in my protagonist’s mind (given the history of losing his father to a grizzly attack while camping there when he was young), the park itself became his antagonist. In some ways, Glacier Park – glorious and savage – is the “star” character of the book.

3) Your novel takes a look at nature’s wilder or darker side. When you’re in the great outdoors in Montana, how often do you feel the threat of the wild?

Northwest Montana’s nature can be quite imposing—not so much because it feels like a daily threat, but because its presence has a strong force or pull. In the Flathead Valley where I live, it is not uncommon to see elk, moose, coyote, bear, fox, and other wildlife just minutes from town. Or, you can be running an errand, your mind on all the things you need to get done and skip a breath because the evening light hitting the surrounding mountains is so inspiring. The natural world surrounds us and tugs at us. And it’s quite special to be constantly reminded of it—to be yanked away from the daily routine of work and errands – even our solipsism – to stop short because the scenery competes for our attention or because a herd of elk passes through the back yard. But we get used to the wild, so it doesn’t feel like a threat, yet there is a respect we have for it. Most of us consider risk-management in some way, not unlike those who live and play near the ocean and are careful about the tides and certain marine life. I carry capsaicin bear spray often, depending on where I choose to walk the dog or to go hiking, and sometimes just taking the trash out before it gets light out makes you wonder what lurks in the bushes beside the driveway. Neighbors frequently lose their cats to anything from owls, eagles, or mountain lions; and pet dogs are sometimes taken by lions and even wolves every so often. We had a black bear in our backyard just two weeks ago. When I walk the dog and see mountain lion or bear tracks on the trail or a pile of bear scat, it definitely carries some weight, some wonder. It reminds me of our mortality and that the untamed parts of our world do present a certain system that many of us—safe in our cities, homes and cars—have been able to disconnect from to a degree. This wonder helps fuel my writing

4) How do conflicts and such wonders show up in THE WILD INSIDE?

In THE WILD INSIDE, some of the conflicts revolve around characters in communities lying just outside Glacier National Park. Glacier draws over a million people (more than Montana’s population) each summer and most of these visitors drive through a canyon where the Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River cut through. The towns in this canyon rely on the onslaught of tourists for a short-lived season, but they are also poverty stricken places with few job opportunities. Heavy drinking and drug use, especially meth, are problems. In my main character’s investigation, he faces the life-styles the locals face as well as the kinds of conflicts that arise in Glacier Park, both intra-agency issues as well as ones that arise from trying to manage nature in order to keep it wild, yet accessible to millions of tourists.

And wonders? Well, they abound in the wilderness, and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to show some of the natural world without sounding preachy. If I can simply release some of the wild in a reader’s mind, let them slide to the side of politics and statistics read in daily papers or journals for a moment, then I am thrilled. In THE WILD INSIDE, I am able to write about the majestic grizzly bear to a small degree – hopefully let its heart beat on the page, and it thrills me to let that animal loose from its cage of statistics, at least in one’s mind. If I can do that with bits and pieces of our natural world, then I feel I have perhaps unwittingly become a servant of Mother Nature, and I love that feeling.

For your main character, how do the tensions in the wild stack up against the human ones?

For Ted Systead, an investigator from the Department of the Interior, who gets called to Glacier to investigate a crime where a man is found dead and bound to a tree, the tensions presented by the wild stack up in his mind much more intensely and ominously. Glacier is the last place Ted wants to work because when he was fourteen, he witnessed his father get mauled and killed by a grizzly while camping there one night. In many ways, the dynamics of being in Glacier, among its wild elements, proves to be much more haunting than some of the disturbing, ruthless, but common human crimes in the local towns outside the park.

5) What comes next? Are you already “deep” into the next novel?

I have already written and turned in the second novel to my editor and will soon be in the process of revising it while simultaneously doing events for The Wild Inside and beginning work on a third novel. The second book will also feature Glacier National Park, and calm and methodical Monty, Ted’s assisting Park Police Officer in The Wild Inside, will lead the next investigation in the beautiful, lush Glacier Park during the summer months when it is in full swing. In some ways, readers will feel like it is a series, since Glacier – practically its own character – continues on, even though both novels can stand alone.

Thank you for interviewing me, Laura!

 

Christine_Carbo-3Christine Carbo grew up in Gainesville, Florida until she moved to Montana when she was twelve. After earning a pilot’s license, pursuing various adventures in Norway, and a brief stint as a flight attendant, she got an MA in English and Linguistics and taught at a community college. She still teaches in a vastly different realm as the owner of a Pilates studio. She lives in Montana with her husband, three kids, one incredibly silly dog and one self-possessed cat.

www.christinecarbo.com
Twitter: @christine_carbo
FB: Christine Carbo, Author
“Evocative debut…Carbo paints a moving picture of complex, flawed people fighting to make their way in a wilderness where little is black and white, except the smoky chiaroscuro of the sweeping Montana sky.”-Publishers Weekly

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In honor of you: A Haven Loveletter

Haven is going fast…  
June 17-21 (full with wait list)

September 9-13 (almost full)

September 23-27

October 7-11

October 21-25

6_15_collageA Day to Observe You.  (sent to all Haven alums with my deepest heart…)

You are home now.  And I am in Montana, slowly waking to the world I left before you made the journey here and shared Haven with me. 

Home.  Re-entry.

There are all the usual things to trip on:  bills, the tea mug in the sink with the almost-dry bag, the clothes that didn’t make the cut strewn on my bedroom window-seat, the still-slow leak in the downstairs bathroom toilet, expected evidence of mouse activity in the kitchen, the hornet nest on the front porch twice as big, the rose in the vase by my bed dried to a dark pink.  The people who are wondering.  Needing.  Judging.  Expecting.  Like I expected the mice.

This is the part where I can’t quite let you go but know that I have to.  This is the part where I have to pick my pen off the page and close the book and trust that you got what you needed in playing with me in those pages, in those five sacred days, with this exact group of humans, taking intention to form to words written, then spoken.  Then released. 

Wind.  Your wind. 

Your wind has wake.  I stand in it.  All day, I will stand in it and observe it and honor it and feel it all around me, and breathe it in and out, in and out, as the sun heats up the earth and the earth heats the air and turns your wind into thermals that hawks ride…all day…knowing power for power…until the sun sinks behind the ridge, and the birds sing a dusk Taps, and your wind gentles, and trees stand sentry again, and the nests are quiet again, and your wind settles at my feet and turns to dew, and feeds bugs and sleeping frogs, and stars come out to tell me it’s time to sleep.  Your deep peaceful Montana night that is of you now.  You in your small corner, and I in mine—my grandmother’s lullaby.  All tucked in until tomorrow. 

I’m not ready for tomorrow.  I still sit in our circle.  I watched your ripples embrace the pond as I sent each of you off on your journey home, lying on the dock, my face reflected back to me, saying your name.  Each of your holy names.  Every time, (and there have been many now, hundreds of names to name)…a wind comes to blow the ripples back in a loving squall that I receive as you have received Haven. 

Thank you.

Thank you from this day of observance, a place in me that is so windblown by your honesty, your courage, your words, your wild loving windful VOICES…that I can’t imagine the world without them.  Your WIND is powerful.  YOU are POWERFUL.  You know that now.  I know you do.  Use it now.  Sometimes wild.  Sometimes gentle.  Sometimes hot and sometimes cool.  Use it.  Know that when you use your voice…your unique rare gift of a voice…you are that wind.  Those hawks.  That earth.  That sky.  And everything in-between.  That’s all there is to know about writing.  You knew it.  You just had to come to Montana to find out for sure.11390215_10152771872081266_5713115019216739589_n

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Writing inspiration from Haven Retreats

Teachers say that they are always students.  I have the pleasure of working with writers almost every month in some form.  Here is some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned and put into my own words.  My daughter has a powerful and unique way of seeing the world.  These are her images.  There is simply nothing more delightful to me than co-creating with people I care about.

Ten more brave souls arrive in Montana on Wednesday from all over the country.  I simply cannot wait to teach…and learn.  Enjoy!

 

 

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Write to Live. Write in Community. Write Because You Can’t Not.

IMG_1507Previously published by Adam Wahlburg from Think Piece Press.

I have written my way through crisis many times in my life.  One of those times resulted in a best-selling book that was published in nine countries.  Most of the other stuff is in my journals.  I believe that writing is a deeply healing tool.  I recently had a conversation with a book editor who specializes in books written about crisis and healing.  I’d like to share it with you because he asked really great questions and got my brain digging deep.

If you are considering writing your way though a crisis in your life, not just for your journals, here are some things to consider:

TP: The book is so skillful about identifying what’s really going on underneath the words, which is so hard to do. How did you arrive at such insights?

LM: Years of therapy! (Laughs.) Seriously. It also came from dealing with years of rejection from publishers and editors. When you get a form letter from the publishing world, it often reads like this: “This does not meet our needs at this time.” Right? It’s just the life of the writer. But I would take that  personally. In two seconds you can take that form rejection letter to, I’m a bad writer, I have no talent, I’m never going to get published, I can’t believe she got published and I didn’t. All that junk. And all that does is bring one into an intense world of suffering, and I had gotten very tired of that suffering. I had to tell myself a new story. And with the help of a great therapist I learned to find a gap between the things that people say and do and my emotional reaction to it. Whether it’s a publisher or a husband!  We have choices emotionally, and that is new news to a lot of people. It was to me.  We don’t have to be emotional victims.

TP: You write so clearly about being aware of your negative self-talk, which is a battle in and of itself, for so many of us.

LM: It is. We all have one of those negative voices and he or she is loud. By the time you become middle-aged, the voice is usually saying really mean things, things you wouldn’t say to your worst enemy. Many of us aren’t even aware of the way we speak to ourselves in our own mind. When you start tuning in, it really helps you to understand how much of a corrosive climate we have in our own minds. We walk around saying such cruel things to ourselves and it becomes our normal. Finding the awareness of what goes on in our minds and seeing how we’re suffering and putting a stop to it is the practice. It’s not going to happen overnight. We have to be able to develop a payoff.

TP: What do you mean by that?

LM: Well, you’re not going to spend your whole life walking around saying, Oh I love myself! My life is great! That would be dandy, but for most of us that’s just not going to happen. When we can start accepting our whole selves including our shadow selves with our inner critic, and realize that the shadow self is a scared creature who lives inside of us, it gets easier to look for where the positive payoff is and to cultivate that. Once we start moving into that way of thinking it can inform our way of being.writing

TP: And writing for you is a part of that payoff?

LM: An essential part. And I think it can be for many people. I think writing should be considered as much a preventative wellness action as diet and exercise.

TP: I like that. When did you discover this for yourself?

LM: Pretty early. I was able to find it as a young woman, and that’s something I’m very grateful for. Writing wasn’t just a passion, it was a lifeline. It was the one place where the climate was a free zone, a place where I could always fit in, a place for my inconvenient truths and dirty secrets. That was the one place I knew I could go whenever I wanted and have it feel safe. Little by little it felt better and better to be in that place.

TP: What a gift.

LM: I’d spend hours and hours on a summer Saturday afternoon up in a treehouse writing and writing and writing. You’re just not born this way. At some point I figured out it feels good. It’s like people who are good at exercising and learn that it feels good to do it, so they go out for a jog. I never got that. (Laughs.) Writing is one thing I’ve been able to show up for in my life no matter what, whether I had three jobs or small children or was going through some sort of a crisis. I’ve always been able to tap into my writing.

TP: How does it feel to have a book take off in the way this one did, after so many years of writing?

LauraLM: I feel like my kids were a good age when this happened; they were in high school and middle school. So I got to model for them not just this woman who sits in this room in Montana and writes all day. (Laughs.) Now they can see that Mom sometimes speaks in front of large groups of people and has a web presence. They can now see me doing something other than just spending all those hours at the bottom of the stairs tapping away at the keyboard. And thank god I am the woman I am now, and the writer I am now, because I know myself now. If I had gotten all this in my twenties or my thirties or early forties it might have overwhelmed me. I know it wouldn’t have stopped my writing but it could have stopped my career. I’m glad for all those years of writing and sitting quietly and privately at that intersection of heart and craft and mind.

TP: How did you keep the faith with writing all those years, finding time to do it while holding jobs and raising children?

LM: You may not know at first why you’re doing it. It took me a long time before I sat down and wrote an author’s statement because at one point after a number of brutal rejections from books that I felt were really quite publishable I just sat myself down and said why? When I realized that this might not happen, this publishing dream of mine, I had to accept that I’m not going to stop because this is my practice, my meditation, my way of life, my way to life. So I wrote down one line that came out of my deepest well, and it said, “I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch-black corner to provide relief for myself and others.” And that’s when I realized I was writing from a place of service, both to myself and others, and that’s when I started getting published.

TP: And through your Haven writing retreats, you’re helping others integrate writing into their lives. How did you get started doing them?

LauraLM: When I suddenly was out there on the wellness circuit talking about personal responsibility and emotional freedom and all these lofty concepts, people would come up to me and say they’d love to write but they don’t feel like they have a unique voice. Or they’d say they don’t have the time or aren’t creative. Plenty of people would come up to me and say that everyone tells them they have an incredible story they need to write but don’t know how to get started. They couldn’t give themselves permission to do it. The one that I heard most was:  “You wrote your way through crisis.  I’m going through a crisis right now.  And I need some way to get through it.” And so it occurred to me one day: why don’t I develop a forum where people don’t have to do it alone? I just put it on Facebook one day. I said, Hey, anyone want to come on a writing retreat with me in Montana? Within two hours I had 24 people sign up. Quickly I figured out where to do it and what the design was going to be and the price point and I started leading retreats. That was four years ago.  And it’s not at all for people going through crisis.  It’s for anyone who wants to dig deeper into their creative self-expression on the page.  Anyone looking for their unique voice.  Anyone looking for permission to breathe it alive!

TP: And it’s growing and growing.

LM: It is. I’ve now worked with over 300 people. Open Road Media named Haven Retreats as one of the top five writing retreats in the country. I lead eight of them a year and we have an ongoing community of writers who continue to support one another. It’s not just a one-time deal. It’s a whole community of support and it’s designed based on what was lacking in my life.  Community.  Support.  Kindred spirits.  Mentorship.  You can come to Haven I and experience the five day immersion into your writing voice and your stories and themes.  Then you can come to Haven II if you are a Haven I alum and have a book in progress.  And then if you complete the Haven II program, you are eligible to work with me one-on-one on your book.  Not everyone who comes to Haven I is working on a book.  So you can come to Haven I and have a complete and powerful experience, or work the whole program from inception to book birth, if that is your goal.  Basically, I designed the retreat that I would want to go on, and the program I wish I’d had all along.  It’s incredible to see all these Haven alums interacting on our private Haven internet page.  So much support and kindness.  It blows me away.

Montana February Haven Retreat, 2015 "I write in a solitude born out of community." -Terry Tempest Williams

TP: You must meet so many interesting people.

LM: I do, and many don’t even consider themselves writers at all. They’re all over the place in their creative journey and I love that. We get people who have strong writing practices, publication credits, and we get people with works in progress, and we get people who are just starting and want to write in their journal or capture their grandmother’s homesteading story.  I love that.  We learn so much just by listening to each other and learning how each person’s voice is exceptional.

TP: Why is community so important?

LM: Just so you can be supported in your process. You can go to a cabin in the woods somewhere and be taken care of for food and things. Even if it’s just a small community that has meals together at the end of the day, I think that’s important. But a lot of people wouldn’t know what to do with the cabin in the words. The retreat is actually a retreat and a workshop in one. Each day you get major craft instruction through the morning class, which consists of writing prompts that I put together. But it’s very much through the back door. It’s play. We get outside of our comfort zone and people find their unique voice. And the evening class is a straight-up workshop, where writers get feedback for their work. You can consider the work that you do in the morning class compost at the end of the class.

TP: And it’s all done in a nurturing environment.

LM: It’s so important to have some kind of community, and to make sure that the people in that community know how to give good feedback. That’s rare, too, to find good readers. I’m trying to offer all of these things to people as I don’t want to perpetuate this tortured-artist paradigm. I want to empower people in their creative self-expression, wherever they are, and I know that’s possible. It doesn’t need to be a tortured way of life. And yet it’s a very rare person that wants to have writing in their life to this degree. I don’t want people walking around feeling alone and different and almost ashamed of that side of them. Haven sets you up emotionally and psychologically, whatever that means to you.

TP: You’re making me want to come to Montana.10482836_10152085778066266_8327595912032369678_n

LM: You have to come! I’m thrilled to share my Montana muse with other people. These people who come are really brave and a little scared but they’re taking a stand for their creative self-expression and it’s inspiring. Somehow they’ve gotten themselves out here to the woods of Montana to do this for five days and it’s wonderful.

TP: So do you still have time to write your own books? What’s next for you?

LM: I write several books at the same time and then I pick one to focus on. I just finished a memoir recently, and I finished a novel last winter that I have high hopes for. I’m also working on a book about the writing life and how to use writing in your life, much in the way that I’m talking about it with you. Oh, and a series of novellas. We’ll see which one gets fully birthed first. But ultimately if none of them gets published, I still feel complete. Writing is how I feel OK on this planet.

— This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.

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We Must Hunger for Our Voice!

How do we commit to our creativity regularly?  Powerfully?  With a hunger that we sate…over and over again?  How do we find our unique voice and give ourselves permission to let it roar out of us?

Helping you find the answer to these questions is my central mission these days.

If you’re wondering what a Haven Retreat is all about, hear it straight from its proud founder!  Come to Montana and share what over 300 from all over the world have experienced.  You do NOT have to be a writer to come to Haven.  Just a seeker…

2015 Haven Schedule:

June 3-7 (full with wait list)
June 17-21 (full with wait list)
September 9-13 (filling fast)
September 23-27 (filling fast)
October 7-11
October 21-25

Radio show with Kink FM host Sheila Hamilton


LMWritingHaven

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If you have said, “I am not Creative,” Read This!

CoverHaven Writing Retreat schedule 2015 (you do not need to be a writer to come– just a seeker…)

June 3-7 (only a few spots left!!!)
June 17-21 (full)

Now Booking:
September 9-13
September 23-27
October 7-11
October 21-25

“Everyone is an artist, and our materials are all about us. To use them, you must see them, and to see them, you must accept that they exist.”  — Bill Kenower

People tell me all the time, “I’m not creative.”  This is simply not true.  We are all creative.  We choose the clothes we put on, the way our living room looks, the words that come out of our mouth.  Usually this is a reaction, sometimes a violent one, to something that someone told us along the way.  “You’re a jock.”  “You’re a brain.”  “You’re artsy.”  Which is to say, that for the most part, we filled in the blank with: “I’m this, not that.”  While this may be true of some things, it is not true about creativity.  Everything we do, no matter what we’re good at or what roles we have chosen in life, EVERYTHING requires creativity.

Not a believer?  Usually it’s because we run into these roadblocks:

  • We think we need to seem smart, or smarter
  • We think we are not original enough
  • We think we need to belong to some sort of method or way or institution for validation
  • We think that we need to have certain accolades
  • We think that someone already did it better than we ever could
  • We think we are just plain not enough

In his wonderful book, “Write Within Yourself:  An Author’s Companion, my friend, the author, speaker, and founder of Author Magazine, Bill Kenower, wrote a wonderful chapter about this topic which helps us see our way through these roadblocks.  He helps us see that we don’t need to try so hard to tap into our creative flow.  It’s right there where we live.  In the way our heart beats, in the way we breathe, in the way we cry and laugh and dance.class

It’s the same thing I tell my Haven Writing Retreat attendees over and over again:  go where you feel most natural, where you feel most at ease.  It does not have to be hard.  That’s not to say that the subject isn’t difficult to face or the details aren’t hard to extract or develop.  It’s that the theme and the attraction to it must be honest and charged with something that comes from deep inside you, something that is already flowing.  You just need to accept it and enter into that flow.  It is in this natural state that you become hungry for what makes your creativity unique, and without-a-doubt:  ENOUGH.

Excerpt from the book:  “Write Within Yourself:  An Author’s Companion” by William Kenower1275_10151421704756266_1852761235_n

WHERE YOU ARE

Though it can seem strangely counterintuitive, the quickest way to change something is to first accept it. Or to put it another way, no matter where you may think you want to be, you are where you are.

For instance, there was a low time in my life when nothing interesting or satisfying seemed to be happening. This puzzled me. I felt capable; I felt curious; I felt creative; I felt ambitious—and yet, nothing seemed to happen.  All was rejection and disappointment.  During this period, I spent a lot of time living in my imagination. In my imagination, things were happening. In my imagination, I was having all kinds of marvelous success, meeting all kinds of interesting people, going to all kinds of interesting places.writers_writing_2

I suppose I can’t be blamed for retreating into my imagination. I was a writer, after all, and by necessity I spent a lot of time there. I learned to create interesting worlds in my imagination, so why not visit one such world if my world seemed less than interesting? It was a pleasant way to pass the time until things in my real world got interesting.

And then one day I was taking a walk, swimming as always in my imaginary waters, when something—literally—stopped me. Here I was making, and making, and making this happy imaginary world for myself that was really not making me any happier at all. It only made me happy as long as I hid there. I stood where I was, and I asked this question, “What could you make with this world?”10430493_10152074148911266_2767363178567064548_n

And as I asked this question, the world around me changed. I saw it all—the bushes, the pond, the birds—as clay. All of it was material. What could I make with where I actually was? Why not start there and see where it goes?

laughThis is why every spiritual doctrine in history teaches acceptance. Acceptance is not passive. Acceptance is not capitulation. Acceptance is an understanding that to create, no matter what you want, you must begin by working with what you have, with where you are. If you resist where you are, you only create an imaginary world where you are not where you are. Everyone is an artist, and our materials are all about us. To use them, you must see them, and to see them, you must accept that they exist.

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The Inner Critter: Awareness First. The Writing Will Follow.

inner critter

As featured in Huffington Post

I recently had a woman come on my Haven Writing Retreat and say, “I learned more in five days of Haven than in my entire MFA program…and I’m still paying it off six years later!”  I hear this sort of overture all too often, and it concerns me.  I also hear, “I’m still chiseling my way out of my college Creative Writing classes and some of the emotional damage I endured there.”  Same goes for many writing workshops that people take in hopes of learning more about their unique voice and how to cultivate it through craft, feedback, and the help of a strong teacher.  It takes guts, putting yourself out there like that.  And it saddens me that while there are so many incredible teachers and writing programs…so many people come in to an instructional writing environment with their hearts in their hands, shivering a bit in their boots, taking a leap of faith with the belief that they will be held responsibly by the experience and the people in it…only to have their guts gutted.  Not on my watch!

My approach is to help people take that heart-in-the-hand and turn it into heart language…and that is a very delicate process.  At my retreats, feedback is something that comes second.  First, we must learn to have the courage to find our most white hot triggering subjects, to free-fall into them, to surface with words on the page and share them out loud without scrutiny– to simply have them heard, to trust that in-so-doing we are helping others to cultivate their ear, and to finally understand once and for all that our voice is unique.  It’s real.  It matters.  And that massive act doesn’t start with creating something that we splay open for people to feast on or send back to the kitchen.

It all begins with self-awareness.

Sounds lofty?  It isn’t.  I hear over and over people saying, “I’m stuck.”  Or “Why does my writing even matter?”  Or “Who do I think I am?  Nobody asked me to write.  It’s self-indulgent drivel at best.”  Or “I’m not good enough.”  And do you know who is delivering up those words?  The inner critic.  (I like to call it the Inner Critter.)   Most of us are not even aware of that voice that lives inside us, viciously so.

Unfortunately, I have been in a long-term abusive relationship with my Inner Critter for years.  My Inner Critter poses as an Ivy League tweed-clad professor, and I tend to assign immediate power to anyone boasting to have a “smart” bespectacled academic Joyce-ean opinion, especially about writing.  For years, I allowed that snivelly old sod to rule the roost in my writing chair.  Then one day I heard someone say, “You wouldn’t treat your worst enemy the way you treat yourself in your own mind.”  And I realized:  That’s who I’ve become.  That’s what’s in my way. I am my own worst enemy.  I hadn’t even been aware of it until that moment.  It wasn’t that I ever, for one second, stopped writing.  It was that I hadn’t given myself permission to understand that no one on earth can write like I can.  It’s not possible.  Each writer’s voice is as unique as a snowflake.  Or a grain of sand.  Or a finger print.  Or your Grandma’s apple pie.

So I declared war.

For awhile, I tried to exorcise the Inner Critter into the Inner Critter Sh**ter, deeming her the enemy and treating her thusly.  That didn’t work.  Because even though she was a confluence of many people and institutions of my life, I’d created her, invited her to live in my mind, and fed her the fat along with the lean.  Declaring war on her meant that I was in a war with myself.  Not a great place from which to tease the muse.  The muse just stood there chewing gum twirling her keys, waiting for me to get a clue.  Turns out, she has really great keys to really great worlds as long as I know how to take care of what goes on in my mind.  The inherent problem with this was that not only hadn’t I been aware of how I was treating myself in my mind, I also had become used to it.  And habits are hard to break.  In all honesty, the Inner Critter liked living in my mind (why wouldn’t she—such five star accommodations?) and frankly, she was a better fighter than I was.

Haven Patron Saint-- SIster in Words

Haven Patron Saint– Guarding the Muse from the Inner Critter

So I took another tack:  I decided that the Inner Critter was really just a scared little girl that lives inside me with a large megaphone to my heart.  And if my daughter came in to my room in the middle of the night raging over a bad dream I wouldn’t kick her out.  I’d hug her, love her, calm her until she went back to sleep.  I tried it, and it worked!  I learned to daily lullaby my Inner Critter into a long nap so that my muse and I could unlock the world of possibility I so longed to explore.  To enter, and to play!  We knew how to do this when we were children.  We just lose our way a little (or a lot) as we go.

I believe that we need to begin here if we are to paint that world with the broad strokes of a Creator all the way to the exacting Pointillism that shows the holy in the mundane—the nouns our hands touch.  It takes heart-in-the-hand-self-aware-guts to go at this thing called the Writing Life.  And once we have all of this in its right place…we can start to know what Picasso meant when he said, “If they took away my paints I’d use pastels.  If they took away my pastels I’d use crayons. If they took away my crayons I’d use pencils. If they stripped me naked and threw me in prison I’d spit on my finger and paint on the walls.”  Or what Michelangelo meant when he said that the sculpture was in the stone; it was his job to release it.

Once we are in that free place of creation, we begin to hunger for our voices.  Why?  Because we are in a natural flow.  Once we are in that flow, it even gets easy.  We’re no longer in our way.  We understand that with every single thing we write, there is an inherent problem.  Of course there is.  Our job is to find the problem and solve it.  The Inner Critter can’t scare us with this challenge any more.  We understand that with every story and every character, real or imagined, there is conflict, and that conflict is blessed terrain.  It’s where all the good questions and good answers live.  Once we have solved a few of these writerly “problems” and rolled around in the conflict that they embody…what was once scary now becomes our guide into the great wilderness of the world we are drawing with our words.  Then we are ready to give and receive feedback for our work.   Then we can get into the elements of style like plot arc, characterization, narrative drive.  Then we can get into the scenes and breathe our characters alive.  Then we can allow their minds to be in the clouds, and their feet to be on the ground.  Then we can show exactly who they are in the way they make a bed.  We don’t need to tell a thing.  It’s all shown.  It’s all there.  We’ve released the sculpture from the stone.  And the heart of the world we’ve created…beats all on its own.

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