Await further instructions.

It sounds like something one would say to a soldier or a spy. Like a text sent to someone holed up in a hotel room, hiding from the mafia. It sounds like something that will require trust — trust that the instructions will arrive and that they will be of use — and patience while one waits for the instructions to arrive. It sounds like it will require letting go of control and of outcome.

And it does.

It’s a strategy that can be useful for someone who is feeling stuck during the process of creating — while writing a novel or working on a painting or trying to come up with a solution to a business problem — as well as someone who is in the situation I recently found myself in: smack in the middle of ‘was’ and ‘now what?’ In the middle of the void,  that empty place where one finds oneself after completing a huge project with no clear sense of what to do next.

It is a frustrating place to be, riddled with doubts and questions and a general sense of unease. Nothing you try while there feels right. Nothing sticks. It’s like being lost with no compass, no map. No smartphone!

What helped me was waking one day with the phrase ‘await further instructions’ in my head. I pondered it throughout the day: Await further instructions. I decided to heed it and immediately, upon doing so, something within me relaxed. I had given up control and the matter was no longer in my hands.

I felt a great sense of relief then, and I quietly went about my life while I awaited further instructions. This required a lot of patience. It required being okay with ‘doing nothing’ while I waited. It required pulling my attention back again and again to the main thing required: trust. Trust in the universe. Trust in myself. Trust in the process. Trust that I would recognize the instructions when they arrived, and that they would be the right instructions for me.

I regularly pulled my attention back to trusting, and stayed alert for signs and clues. In the end, the instructions came. And, yes, they were exactly the right instructions for me, at the right time. They just felt right. And they still do — they feel like exactly what I needed to discover.

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The void.

A year ago March, I finished the first draft of a memoir I had been working on for two years. I gratefully, wearily stuffed it into a drawer and awoke the next morning quite sure I didn’t want to ever write another word, ever again. It was a weird feeling because all I have wanted to be, all of my life, was a writer.

I spent the year that followed in a funky, weird sort of space that I simply refer to in my mind as “The Void.” It is a space where I didn’t write. I was so certain I never wanted to write again that I closed down my freelance writing and editing business and found a nine-to-five job as a proofreader.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been quietly commuting into my job, marking up documents, and then quietly returning home. Not writing. I’ve engaged in other creative acts during this time, including drawing cartoons, a brief foray into graphic storytelling, painting with watercolors, and taking photographs.

I never, not once, stopped noting the beauty that surrounds us every day. The sort of beauty that many people simply walk past, not noticing. I never stopped noting how quirky and funny and mean and angry and sad and complicated and how vulnerable human beings are and how much capacity we have for love and tenderness. I never stopped noticing moments of grace – when there is so much lovely magic in the air, it practically crackles. And so, even though I refer to the past year as “The Void,” it has been, actually, very full. And, of course, here I am writing again. Writing about not writing, but… writing all the same.

Trust the process.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been struggling with resistance recently while writing the memoir. I did manage to get in there on Sunday, July 14, and again on the 21st to work, but then not at all on the 28th, the 4th, or the 11th. It was just not a world I wanted to enter. I wrote about my resistance in my journal and I talked about it with a friend. My friend talked a long time with me on Saturday about the memoir, and perhaps this helped. She also said, “How about just trying to write 500 words instead of your usual 1,000?” I said, “Good plan.”

So I got up on Sunday, made my coffee, flipped open the laptop, opened the memoir file and went in to write my 500 words. Three and a half hours (and four cups of coffee) later, I closed the laptop. I had written 2, 747 words.

Which puts me back on track.

Most importantly: I broke through something very difficult in the manuscript. Who knows if all of that angsting and procrastinating and anxious fretting of the past few weeks was necessary or not? It may not have been necessary at all. But I’m going to bet it was. It was necessary. Maybe even essential. My subconscious was working through something. And it wasn’t ready to get in there and tackle it yet. But, boy, when it was ready, it went right for the target. It nailed it.

Process — trust it. Trust that your subconscious is doing its job as you are mopping the floors/cleaning cat hair off of the couch/clipping said cat’s nails/wiping the windowsills and de-dusting the mini-blinds/organizing your tax receipts from four years ago/trying to figure out how to re-attach the thinga-ma-jig that fell off of the chain to the ceiling fan… Trust that while you are doing all of that very seemingly necessary stuff, your subconscious is doing the work that is essential.

And then get out of the way and let it do its thing. Trust the process.

Writing into resistance.

I have been resisting working on my memoir the past two Sundays. I open the file and then I find all kinds of other things to do. This is not like me: I generally am very disciplined about writing and I just go in there and do it. But the past two Sundays: resistance.

Of course, because I am so disciplined, it ruins my whole day. Because I won’t back off once I open the file. There was once – only once – when I was working on the memoir that I knew I wasn’t in a good place to write that day and I took the day off.  But I gave myself permission ahead of time, and I only take those sorts of days off rarely and judiciously. I do so either for the well-being of the text or for my own emotional well-being or for both. But this was not like that – this was pure, flat-out resistance. It was procrastination. It was, ‘I know I should do this, but I don’t want to.’

And so, I spent both this Sunday and last Sunday in that uncomfortable place of backing away from the text to do other things. You know the sort of things we writers do: I made really nice meals. I watered the plants. I re-arranged the items in the freezer. I futzed with the bent slats on the mini-blinds. I spent two very uncomfortable and restless and uneasy Sundays putzing around like this when I could have gone in there right away to get the work done and then headed off to the beach or the park. But, no. I spent the days pacing my apartment like a panther resisting its prey, nervous and twitchy.

And, on both days,  when I finally pounced, there was reward. There was meat to be found in the words. And so then I could close out the file for another week and go my way.

But why the resistance? A wise friend asked me a very wise question this morning when I mentioned it. She said: ‘What are you working on in the memoir?’ Bingo! Thank you. What I am working on in the memoir is the entry point into the hardest and darkest heart of it. I am readying to enter the eye of the storm. And even though I know how the story ends – I know I made it through that eye – I don’t know that in the text of the memoir yet. Me as character in the text does not know how it all turns all, and a reader would have no idea, either, coming upon it cold, at this point. What happens? How does the character resolve this?

In addition, it has pulled me – the ‘character’ I am now (writer, decades later) back to that hard and difficult part of my life. In real life and in real time, I couldn’t hesitate. It was all just happening and it was happening fast and I simply had to act. I had to take action. But now, the writer part of me, decades later – I can hesitate. I can say, ‘Maybe I don’t want to take action.’ ‘Maybe I don’t want to re-enter that dark and intense realm.’ ‘Why can’t I go to the beach, instead?’ And who can blame me? However, I know that I have to do it. In order to bring order to the chaos, I have to gear up and get in there. I have to grab hold of it and wrestle it into form. If I don’t bring some order to the chaos, I will be damned to wander through the remainder of my life restless and uneasy and prickly and twitchy (it’s great fun being a writer, isn’t it?).

The good thing is: I know how it all ends. The bad thing is: I know how it all ends. It doesn’t end happily. But the other good thing is: I’ve made my peace with that, for the most part, over the years, and so I don’t have to do that particular kind of hard work again. No – the work I have to do now is to find the grace in the difficulty, the glimpses of light in the darkness, the small bit of redemption in a moment that seems to be only downward falling. I need to find the ‘lift.’ I need to find the dignity. I need to find the beauty in all of that ugliness. I do know it is there. I just have to find it and arrange it in a way that makes it clearly seen. That is my task.

When I look at it that way, I feel a bit revitalized. Inspired. Ready to take on the work.

I can do this. Next Sunday, I’m going to gear up and get right in there. There’s work to be done. There’s a challenge to be met.  And I’m the only one who can meet this particular challenge: It’s my story. My challenge.

Emerging From the Time Machine: Coming back to the present after working on your memoir.

I work on my memoir every Sunday morning, no exception. The time I work on it varies, but my goal is always 1,000 words. Once I get those down, I am free to go. It can take two hours to get those words down, or it can take six hours. Regardless, at the end of that time, I am in always solidly in another decade. I am in Springdale 1984 or 1985 or 1986. And I’ve got to do everything I can to get myself back to here and now, Boston 2013, because this is where my life is now. So, how do I do it? How do I re-emerge (gracefully) from that long ago time into now? How do I come back, blinking in the bright but never harsh light of 2013, smoothly? It depends on the season and time and how far embedded in the past I was, but here are some techniques I use to get me back to now, ASAP:

• A long, hot shower. This works fast and it is soothing, too: I wash the past away and relax into now under a stream of hot water. When I step into the shower, it might be 1984. When I step out, it is solidly 2013, and a big, fluffy, soft towel is waiting for me. Like a time machine in a shower stall!

• Food. This was the very first method I incorporated for getting back to now, back in the early days of working on the memoir. Why? Well, it was sort of a reward. It was late fall when I first began to write deeply into the memoir… and it was always a Sunday. I would often emerge from the writing blinking and bewildered and very hungry. I wanted something that was not simply nourishing, but comforting. Think: butter. Think: warm maple syrup. Think: pancakes so light and fluffy they melt in your mouth. It worked! I’d make the pancakes mindfully. It was a process… the mixing of the batter, the melting of the butter. The tender and patient wait until bubbles formed around the edge of each pancake. And then I’d eat them mindfully, too. Usually, by the time I finished off the plate, I was back here. Now. Grounded and solid and very well fed. I found that French Toast works just as well… slabs of bread soaked in milk and eggs, then fried in butter and seasoned with cinnamon. And, again, maple syrup. Now that it is summer and I’m eating lighter, I make pancakes with yoghurt and berries. Still works like a charm.

• Walks. No matter the season, but especially in spring, walks are the answer to getting from the past to now. It’s great to get out and move! To get out of one’s head and into one’s body with the sights and sound and scents of now all around to experience and bring you back.

What NOT to do:

• Never go on an online blind date directly after working on your memoir. I learned this the hard way. It’s so surreal… you don’t want to do this.

• Don’t attempt to do your taxes. Just, don’t. ‘Nuff said.

• Don’t try to work on a freelance project that is under a tight deadline! I attempted this once… never again. I now make sure I have all of my freelance gigs wrapped up by Friday evening, Saturday afternoon at the latest. I make absolutely sure I clear the decks for Sunday. Nothing on the table except for inter-decade time travel and working on the memoir.

Time travel via memoir writing is not easy – the things we are writing about may not always be pleasant and we are often glad to be past them. The last thing we want is to get stuck in the past! That sounds like a nightmare. It’s good to have tried and true ways to come back to the present.

Eat your technique.

Several years ago, I read an interview with Tom Robbins in the book On Being A Writer. I used to love Tom Robbins when I was in my early 20s — he was the one who made me appreciate the magic of the metaphor, who showed me how to delight in the possibilities of playfulness and whimsy in language. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was one of my favorite novels at the time.

The advice from the interview is as follows:

First of all, you have to eat your technique. You can’t write technique anymore than you can speak grammar. So, you develop some technique, and then you eat it. Digest it. Eliminate it so it’s a part of yourself; it’s in your blood, but you’re not concerned with it anymore.

And then all you do is, you write a sentence and see where it takes you. You take a trip on the page. You go where the sentences lead you. It’s a journey.

When I first read this advice several years ago, I wasn’t sure what it meant. Since then, I’ve done a gazillion writing exercises to develop “technique,” I’ve amassed many short stories, and I’ve put ten of them together in a collection. I’ve written a novel and a memoir and a good number of essays and blog posts and articles and flash pieces. The cool thing is: I get it now. “Technique.” It’s mine. It’s there, in my blood. I don’t have to think about it. I’ve learned to use the tools to my advantage, like the violin maker learns to use the bridge fitter and the bending iron, like the potter learns to use the wedging table and the wheel. I’ve learned to use the scene and the image, the pacing and the detail… it’s mine, the particular manner in which I use it. I write the sentence; I see where it goes. What follows — the journey — is a trip only I can go on. It’s that unique. That individual. It’s my technique.

So, eat your technique. Digest it. Eliminate it into your blood. Let it sing in your bones while you create in the way that only you can create.

Paying the bills.

Haruki Murakami owned and operated a jazz club while he penned his first two novels. Raymond Carver was a janitor at Mercy Hospital. Anne Lamott taught tennis and cleaned houses. J.K. Rowlings was unemployed and lived on state benefits.

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was a child. As an adult, I’ve done many things to buy the time to write. To pay the bills, I’ve been a newspaper carrier, a bookstore clerk, an English tutor, a creative writing instructor, a pet sitter, a freelance article writer, a dogwalker, and a proofreader. None of these jobs have been ideal, but they have bought me time to write.

What have you done to pay the bills and purchase time to work on your creative projects?