In January I went to a silent retreat for the first time.
There I sat on a cushion on a mat, facing another soul in a room of about sixty, feeling my poor, overstretched knees go numb yet again. How did I get to this wretchedly uncomfortable place? Before coming I could MAYBE meditate for 20 minutes, a few times a week, and had always felt positive that more than a day of silence would be intolerable.
We had been kind of tricked into it, you see. My mother had met a teacher of zen koans in New Mexico, and now he was offering a winter retreat in Santa Rosa. I explored his web site and I'm pretty sure that nowhere on the site were the words, “You will sit thirty minutes, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk for ten, and then have breakfast. Then start the whole thing over from breakfast to lunch, from lunch to dinner, etc.” Had they been there, even a hint, I probably would not have signed up.
But here we were. The first two days were hard, hard, I’m not going to lie. My brain was not used to being held to a schedule and screamed at me all night long with crazy rhymes and bits of music and chatter. But then it got better. By the fifth day I felt stable, spacious, and integrated, the way I used to feel before adolescence. All through the week I noticed the sounds of silence:
6 a.m., many people in a dark library lit by candles. We've all had a sip of green tea and, here and there, stomachs growl.
The shaft of morning light lengthening as it finds its way down the wall.
A barefoot teacher walking very, very slowly across the carpet and bowing to students.
The collective silence of people eating, eyes downcast to preserve everyone’s privacy. In this space, I discover the miracle of how extraordinary simple food tastes when you are not busy chatting about something to someone.
The warm silence when a morning fills with bird calls, and then they all cease.
The peace of one's tiny room upstairs, very different from the meditation hall.
Students pondering a koan late at night by the fireplace. Space to hear the cracking and snapping of a lit log.
Within that mysterious palace of silence, my spine grew and my senses sharpened. Gladness grew in my heart. Was it that simple? We carry our breath wherever we go.
One morning I walked through the garden. Across an expanse of brown twigs, the tangy coral of crab apple blossoms shouted out to me.
“When artists and professionals regularly accept responsibility for their actions, they shape deep, rich, and evolving pictures of who they are, pictures that permit them to act consistently with emerging notions of their authentic selves.” Intentional Practice & The Art of Finding Natural Audience: A Framework for Artists and Professionals.
Marc Zegans is a poet in Santa Cruz, California who provides creative development advice to artists, musicians, actors, directors, and other creatively minded professionals such as therapists. He wrote a brilliant, very slender e-book a few years ago and put it on Amazon at such a ridiculously low price that it should already rest in the toolbox of every artist and professional.
I recently re-read it and was reminded of how I want to function as an active, authentic, ethical artist and minister, and where my natural audiences might be. Based on my working session with his book and his penetrating questions, I now know exactly how I will overhaul my website and blog in the next few weeks so that they more accurately reflect who I am.
If you want to know more about Marc and the many creatives and professionals he’s helped, trot on over to www.mycreativedevelopment.com.
Meanwhile, here are two more of many, many gems from his book:
“Your natural audience isn’t everyone you can pull into the room; it’s the group of people who have a good reason to be there.”
“Often, we claim that authenticity and integrity demand distance as a rationale to cover our fear of engagement. When such claims are based in fear, there is nothing authentic about them. We are using a ploy to protect ourselves from finding out how good we really are, what we can do when we have resources, and what we will do when we don’t.”
A week before the book was to launch, I grew so restless. I paced and fretted. I had completed every task I set out to do for the book. What would the launch look like?
Every day that week I watched the title rise in Amazon ranking from about a millionth place to as high as 131,000. It went down a lot, too! So I stopped watching before it became too stressful a habit.
On December 2, at 12:30 in the morning, I woke up and learned what the launch looked like: Satisfaction. Joy. All alone in the dark, I felt a very steady sense of accomplishment. The book is published and can live on its own in the world.
Later in the day I checked back in with my feelings, over a latte and pear-ginger croissant. Yep, that steady warmth was still there.
That evening I had some dear friends over and we laughed and chatted over lasagne. I opened a couple of tins of blackfish caviar, and a few bottles of
Sofia sparkling wine. That good feeling? Still there.
Promotion on social media is full-time work. Here’s how I’ve gone about it.
I read eight books about promoting books. I underlined and tagged them, and kept a notebook with a page dedicated to each element of the publicity strategy: biography, elevator speech, ideal city-tour plan, etc. Lots of lists.
I repeatedly worked through a 26-page online list that Chronicle Books offers authors as I came up to speed on social media.
Creating physical space
A month ago it was hard to work in my home office. Looking back, no wonder! The space was crowded, especially with things that weren’t actually mine, and at the same time, scattered. The sight of them siphoned my attention from The Wedding Officiant’s Guide. I removed what didn’t belong (including seven bags of books), and sorted what remained to align with one purpose: promoting this book to the best of my ability.
Setting up posts in cyberspace
My web site. Amazon. Goodreads. Twitter. An account at Chronicle Books. Pinterest. Facebook. Step by step I set them up, and then began many weeks of "checking my fences" and making the adjustments.
Sorting and listing action items
In the newly calm, airy space, I set up two whiteboards. One tells me what to do. I list tasks for this week, and also incoming ideas. On Friday, the task list is mostly erased, so the incoming list becomes next week’s tasks.
The other whiteboard records the seeds I’ve sown, sprouts to tend, and little miracles. And I list angels, people who have shown extraordinary support in this venture.
My heart is full of gratitude for these publicity angels
Stephanie Wong, my publicist at Chronicle Books who valiantly connects copies with reviewers and pitches with the media. What an amazing Grace.
Jennifer Randolph, my publicity coach. We’re going to an Oprah event and bringing business cards!
Jenny Walicek, who is extending her hand to me from high on the social media learning ladder saying, “Reach up and grab hold, you’ll be fine!”
Cathleen Miller, whose weekly two-pagers and kind words grew my blogging muscles. And whose example of organized book writing is positively inspirational.
The splendid writers and teachers Kate Evans, Mary Reynolds Thompson, and Kyczy Hawk, whose brave examples show that if I take simple steps from a heart-led space, I, too, can become a citizen of their caring, committed, literary world.
One of my heroes will arrive soon in my metropolis. Actually, she is also bringing several of my heroes with her.
This is not a paid announcement; Oprah and her extensive staff have no idea of my existence. But the fact of her coming to what we still call “The Shark Tank” in downtown San Jose—and that I am going to spend an evening and a day as part of the audience--seems so mighty as to be blog-worthy.
I came to Oprah late. You can find all kinds of stories about her success in television: the boundaries her show pushed, her rise through multiple glass ceilings. Not much of a TV watcher at the time, I first found her while sifting through the library’s free magazine box for collage materials. I judged O Magazine to be an excellent source of colorful images and paper (it still is. So is Martha Stewart Living).
Over time, my issues of O magazine grew too full of relevant articles and pithy wisdom to cut up. I bought a subscription. Oprah had already started building an academy for girls in the Gautang province of South Africa; she produced movies; the episode where she dragged a wagon of lost fat onstage was already legend.
She graduated from her TV show and began to tackle the huge issues of running a network. That's when my love affair with her "Super Soul Sunday" program began. I record the shows and dip into them while I make dinner on weekdays.
With the advent of her interviews with people whom I can only describe as "awake," I realized Oprah herself has become one of my strongest spiritual teachers. She delights in wisdom, refuses to stick to one dogma, and broadcasts what she finds. She's creating and maintaining a world-class interfaith seminary, freely open to anyone with access to a television. I hold her in a category with Joseph Campbell, Carl Sagan, and Dr. Matthew Fox. She walks her talk and puts her money behind these lofty goals. I want to do something good in the world like she does.
My other heroes who might be there: Elizabeth Gilbert, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant, and Rob Bell.
The show is titled “The Life You Want,” and I feel blessed to be already leading one, so I don’t plan to change course radically. But I am drawn to these beautiful souls, and want to absorb as much wisdom I can.
It easy for me to tell that autumn has come. I find myself reaching for long-sleeved shirts and boots, thinking about food.
A restless urge stirs inside me so that I sort through my bookshelves, releasing seven bags of books I no longer need. And I think about food.
I’m compelled to sort the family’s flannel sheets and throw out plastic lids with no containers, thinking wildly about food.
Roasted butternut-apple-onion soup.
Roasted beets in mango balsamic vinaigrette.
Kubocha pumpkin soup --- it doesn’t get any easier. Roast it and purée with the stock of your choice.
If you want to get fancier, quinoa salad with minced red onion, feta, orange segments, arugula, cilantro, mint, and chopped dried cranberries and apricots. Slivered almonds optional.
Oatmeal with persimmon, banana, walnut, and cranberry. No sugar or milk needed.
Pears baked in apple juice with cinnamon and vanilla.
Or just an Asian pear (also called apple pears) thinly sliced, with a cup of ginger honey tea.
Last Thursday I got one of the most exciting e-mails of my life. "Hello," it began, "I’m an editor with (a wedding magazine) and we’ve decided to feature your book in our review section of the winter/spring issue. . ."
At the fall equinox in 2014, it’s almost hard to remember June of 2012 when I signed the contract with Chronicle Books and sat down to write The Wedding Officiant’s Guide.
I sent my huge, messy draft to Doris Ober late that year. Doris is a meticulous independent editor as well as an excellent author. The rewriting took another nine months, and then I began to polish the story with Lisa Tauber and Dawn Yanagihara, my wonderful editors at Chronicle Books.
Gradually, the book rose out of my hands and flew off to live with the editors, designers, and producers, and I sat alone at my dining room table surrounded by vast silence. The book publishing process moves glacially when you are used to blogging. I countered the loss by creating a wildly improbable publicity scheme for myself and biting my nails.
Special cross-marketing events, national touring, knocking on Martha Stewart’s door. . . none of this has happened yet, and it probably won’t even be approved when I do get my fifteen minutes with the publicist at Chronicle Books. But something happened off of my radar, something marvelous. The publisher sent me a handful of author copies of the actual, adorable little sky-blue paperback, which I wrapped (as you see in the picture above) and mailed to all the people I interviewed for the book. But at the same time, Chronicle sent a bunch of the books (50? 100?) to reviewers and magazines.
Seeds were sown (have I mentioned how cool it is working with Chronicle?) and now I’m seeing tiny green leaves breaking the loamy surface.
Over the past several weeks I’ve identified elements of what, to me, would make up a satisfying Writers Colony, a summer boot camp for the writer who wants to complete a project or two. We’ve touched on the obvious importance of reading and writing, and on more subtle helps from meditation. We’ve looked at writing supports such as physical exercise and hearing other writers talk about their craft.
In addition to these, I recommend field trips to stimulate your brain. Not just your field work, but what Julia Cameron famously calls Artist Dates. You might poke around the shabby antique store in your neighborhood, or get a meal at a hot-dog stand shaped like an orange, or visit the bowling alley. Art museums and galleries, of course! This summer I went beachcombing in North Carolina’s Outer banks. Over several mornings I realized that gathering and sorting shells can become a profoundly insightful editing process, a metaphor learned through my hands and eyes that will inform my future work.
I also mentioned arts and crafts in my first post. Don’t confine yourself to the page, the screen, the black ant trail of letters marching ever onward. Make room for fun, mess, and possibility. If you have any art materials, unearth them and make a space for them. Schedule a late afternoon, or maybe an early morning. You have no art materials? String penne noodles on a length of dental floss and wear it. Or take a page from your newspaper and scribble on it, blacking out all but some random words. Gardening is good, as are origami and sketching. We are experimenting with new ways of seeing.
As I wrap up this series, I look at my two huge writing projects (one, the extroverted task of setting up a publicity strategy for The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, and the other very introspective task of figuring out how to tell the story of the next book) and I am glad to see that I accomplished something; I’ve chipped away at the mountains.
Accountability really helped. My friend, Jennifer, patiently accepts an e-mail from me every Friday afternoon that lists all the micro-actions I took that week. Jennifer is under no obligation to even read what I send. I keep a sticky note on my desktop, add to my list every time I do something, and start the list fresh on Saturday. Somehow this is the accountability that I need.
Have you heard the term “Bookending”? Suppose you have a task you really don’t want to face, for whatever reason. Work it out with a friend that you will call them just before the task and again just after the task. You don’t need to talk much—just check in. It really helps!
Accountability requires some form of community. Ultimately, community is what differentiates a writing retreat from a session at a writing colony. Where is your community? If you don't already have it, you might find some in a writing class, a writing MFA program, a poetry group, a writer's club, a coach, or in multiple online writing spheres.
I hope this Summer Writers Colony series entertained you, and in some way helped your own process. I expect to be called away from the laptop shortly as twin babies make their debut in my family. When I get back, I’ll write about weddings and my experience with publishing The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, as well as some thoughts arising from my spiritual studies.
What writing tasks did you work on this summer?
Back to Part 5 Now I need to read all of Lisa's blog posts
Last week I enjoyed a summer vacation and family reunion in a spectacularly large house on the Outer Banks, a place on the North Carolina coast I had not heard of. I tried new things like stalking wild mustangs, taking a group portrait on the beach, even poring through the Wright Brothers’ Memorial Museum in Kitty Hawk.
In the midst of the hubbub, I did some writing. I slipped away from the breakfast table every morning around seven and took barefoot walks in the sea foam, and along the way, two essays formed themselves.
Writing, after all, is why we are here in the Writers’ Colony, right? If not writing on a particular project, then doing other non-project writing that keeps us limber and juicy. Journaling, letters. Essays and poetry and little stories, all are encouraged.
And to feed our brains, we read good writing. I kept far from the laptop and television on vacation, and only used my phone as a camera. Books flew naturally into that vacuum. In eight or nine days I read:
Reading de Botton and Otsuka stretch my book-structuring skills and make me want to choose finer words. Allende makes me think about writing scenes and time transitions. Sparks points out that what I saw in the Outer Bank waves were porpoises, not dolphins. And Colwin makes me want to bake gingerbread. What are you reading?
And how are you working on your own writing project? Have you set yourself milestones? Here’s a list of marching orders I’ve cooked up for my new book. If you see anything you like, take it and make it work for you.
Tasks for the book
Back to Part 4 Let's hit the finale! Part 6
The Wharf to Wharf is an annual six-mile run/walk from Santa Cruz to Capitola. Each year, its 16,000 tickets sell out right away. Gentle coastal scenery, the ocean breezes, and support from a panoply of artistic Santa Cruzians -- all make this a special event. But better than that, better even than the T-shirt?
The best part is training for the Wharf to Wharf. After all, the event is only one morning long, but training requires, for me, weeks of walking my neighborhood. Every other morning I tramp through my local suburbs, immersed in the sound of wind through the trees. I scan flights of crows, lovingly tended gardens, dappled shade. Mornings are best, before the heat is too much. There’s a fresh quality to the light, an almost golden tinge to the edges of black oaks and pepper trees.
These past few weeks I’ve written about combining key elements to create a writer’s colony session in your own home, at your own pace. Part of our summer retreat has got to be exercise, if only to undo some of the damage that winter and bad habits created. Walking is my favorite -- athletics, esthetics, meditation and writing practice rolled into one.
Walking makes us breathe more deeply, washing away toxins accumulated from fretting at the computer as we write. The stride sends fresh waves of oxygenated blood coursing through the brain. The nonverbal rhythm of step after step informs the internal rhythm of words. Instead of focusing on marks that inch across the screen, we can practice diffuse awareness: the breeze, a scent of sun-ripened apricot, pressure from the balls of our feet resting on cement and then pushing off again. We spend some moments lost in thought, brought back abruptly by some external stimulant: a crossing, a dog, a bee, an airplane, another walker.
My body moves, my mind moves, my attention expands and contracts. All this allows new ideas, new solutions and resolutions. Walking also helps me to slowly release my writer’s tire and shake out ever-constricted shoulders. Writers have reported swimming and sweeping or raking to be similarly helpful. What physical activity keeps you sane as you write?
Back to Part 3 Heck, why not Part 5