Taking Risks in Writing and in Life

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Writing is an act of discovery.

Writing can unearth truths you were afraid to face.

You think you know your subject or plot or characters, until the words begin to march to the beat of their own drum.

Sometimes you discover-perhaps from a trusted first reader–that your words fall flat. Or sound too familiar. Or leave too much white space. 

Something is missing.

To write compelling stories, we have to mine our minds and hearts. This requires a certain boldness.

In drafting a story or essay, or even a blog post, you encounter numerous choices. Which turn will you take?

Some choices seem riskier than others. 

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To write something meaningful that will resonate with readers, we must take risks. We must learn to write at the edge of what feels comfortable.

We have to ask: what am I holding back? Why? 

What do I fear by writing the truth, or exploring this matter?

Whenever I’ve pushed myself in this way, the net outcome was rewarding, whether yielding a stronger piece, satisfaction in my work, or publication. Rewards also come from the reader letters I receive.

The same can be said for our lives. Our limiting beliefs keep us from taking risks. So do our fears.

Fear of what others might think.

Fear of being uncomfortable.

Fear of facing certain feelings we’d rather keep ten feet away.

So we remain in the status quo. Settle into a comfortable routine. Stay inside our safety net—a wholly understandable choice in today’s upside down world.

Yet when we remain there, we miss so much. We miss experiences we can’t even yet imagine. 

Sometimes the risk we take is for another. To show up when we’d rather stay home. This, too, can bring unexpected rewards.

I decided that 2022 would be my year of saying “Yes”. 

Yes to new opportunities, relationships, experiences, challenges, and writing projects.  I chose this action not only to face fear but to feel more alive.  To have fewer regrets, even if the outcome isn’t what I hoped for.

But there was another driving factor in this shift: my continued awareness of the brevity of life and the uncertainty of tomorrow in our broken world.

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I choose to say YES more often because next week, month, year, I may not have this choice. 

A most recent and life-changing Yes was traveling solo from Boston to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala for an 8 day writing retreat. In deciding whether or not to embark on such a trip–my first outside North America–I found several excuses to say No Not Now. (It helps to have a few cheerleaders on your side.)

Stay tuned for the full story…which I wasn’t sure I’d live to tell! 

A Poem for Our Times: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

I’m a big fan of poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019). Her passion for the natural world intertwined with intense human emotion both inspire and challenge our assumptions.

Credit: Orion Magazine

“Wild Geese” (2004) is one of her most popular and often quoted poems. When I reread it recently, I thought it particularly suited for our times.

American culture is rife with public scrutiny, shame, ridicule, and censorship. Daily messages of outrage tell us that we don’t measure up. We are condemned for our beliefs and even whom we love.

“Wild Geese” is a reminder that you are enough. You don’t need to live someone else’s definition of what is “good”.

You can move past your mistakes. Each day begins anew. No matter your err of yesterday, the sun still rises and sets.

You need not be weighed down by guilt or shame. You can fly wild and free.

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Wild Geese: Selected Poems, Gardners Books, 2004

Your Brain on Grief

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Why does grief hurt so much? 

Mary-Frances O’Connor’s new book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss attempts to answer this question and more through neuroscience and personal stories of bereavement. 

Dr. O’Connor, a clinical psychologist, directs the Grief, Loss, and Social Stress Lab at the University of Arizona. She studies the effects of grief on the brain and body. Her findings show how the brain’s hormones and neurochemicals produce this aching and seemingly unbearable sensation we know as grief.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of disbelief after a loved one died.

Maybe you even continued to look for him or her, even though you witnessed the funeral. O’Connor explains this phenomenon. 

The brain struggles to understand what happened when our loved one dies. The dimensions that we once knew them in—space and time—disappear. 

Yet we remain attached.

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Our brain hasn’t yet caught up with this disparity and still expects our loved one to return.

The brain has to unlearn the predicted associations of place and time. The passage of time is needed to update the mind maps we used to locate our loved one.

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O’Connor’s grief studies include loss of important friendships and romantic breakups. These losses also produce a sense of disbelief and yearning.

Absence of a special person, O’Connor says, sets off emotional alarm bells. Our invisible attachment bonds are stretched beyond what we think we can handle.

This alarm is compounded if the absence occurs abruptly, a.k.a “ghosting”. Since our brain believes and knows the absent person is still “out there”, it searches for explanations and seeks to “fix” whatever led to the departure.

Just as after a death, our brain must learn to imagine a future apart from this absent love. 

I found the The Grieving Brain a fascinating read. O’Connor sheds light on the universal experience of grieving, helping us to feel less alone, less crazy, and better equipped to move forward.

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She concludes with this comforting thought:

“The physical makeup of our brain–the structure of our neurons–has been changed by them. …and these neural connections survive in physical form even after a loved one’s death…Once we have known love, we can bring it into our awareness, we can feel it emerge and emanate from us…Because of our bonded experience, that loved one and that loving are a part of us now, to call up and act on as we see fit in the present and the future.”

Update: My adapted essay, “Losing My Words”, has been included in the newly published Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving, Loss, and Healing. 101 Stories of Comfort and Moving Forward.

A Seminar Named Desire: Writing in Key West Jan-22

Sun, sea, sand.

Three words that bring me joy in January.

Add to this trio communing with kindred spirits and the joyful picture is complete.

I recently spent a week in Florida at the Key West Literary Seminar exploring the craft of creative nonfiction under the guide of esteemed author David Treuer. 

This year’s Seminar theme was Desire.

For three hours each morning I, along with 10 other writers, grappled with how to tell true stories in engaging and meaningful ways. We considered subject, form, voice, detail, conflict, momentum, and dramatic arc.

We read and critiqued each other’s works-in-progress and learned strategies for creating compelling nonfiction. We discussed the writing life and shared our life stories. 

Doing this among strangers takes courage, but it wasn’t long until we bonded over our shared passion.

Being in the physical presence of fellow writers for the first time in over two years, was at times overwhelming. In a good way. Sometimes you don’t realize what you are missing until it arrives. 

Workshop friends
Workshop leader and author, David Treuer
Writers on Writing talk and book signing.

Many literary luminaries wrote in Key West including Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, Wallace Stevens, Anne Beattie, and Judy Blume.

Writers continue to draw inspiration from this unique place. If you visit, make sure to take the Literary Walking Tour. 

View from Hemingway House
Old Man and the Sea Exhibit
Hemingway’s writing studio
One of the 56 Hemingway cat descendants. This one six-toed.

The arts abound in the Key West. The island is only 5 square miles, easily walkable and bike rentals readily available. The place is full of color and character. I found the locals quite friendly.

The stars truly aligned for all this to happen amidst the Omicron threat. I am grateful to the Seminar committee for granting me a fellowship, along with the lovely accommodations at Eden House.

This break in routine, change of scenery, socializing, and inspiration all served to jump-start my creativity and motivation. 

I gained the direction and focus needed to complete the essay I’d struggled with for many months.  “The Bridge That Fell Down” is now ready to send out into the world. 

I hope you, too, can find ways to experience this much-needed rejuvenation, big or small, in anyway possible. 

Winter Solstice Reflection: Where were you 2 years ago?

The pandemic has forced us to make peace with uncertainty.

December 13, 2019. 

I’d just returned from a fabulous NYC trip. My daughter and I shopped Fifth Avenue, dined out, enjoyed the holiday displays, visited Rockefeller Center, and happily sat in a crowded Broadway theatre.

We had no idea what was in store for the 2020 New Year. Couldn’t even imagine it. 

No idea that some faraway virus would upend our lives. 

No inkling that her 2020 NYU graduation would be cancelled. 

Never fathomed that the Broadway we’d always enjoyed would shut down in two months. 

And so it goes.

Here we are December 19th, 2021, still exhausted from risk calculations. The Omicron news brings flashbacks to 2020. We may be in a different, even better place, yet for many of us, our bodies remember the trauma and react as if it’s happening all over again. 

The pandemic years have forced us to make peace with uncertainty. As a result, I’m less inclined to put things off, and more inclined to grab an opportunity when it arises. 

So, recently, my daughter and I grabbed tickets to a holiday musical showing in Boston. We were all dressed up and ready to go when we learned that the show was cancelled.

Yet a strange thing happened.

Instead of utter disappointment, we were more relieved to find this out before driving all the way into Boston at night! Thankfully, the venue offered us the chance to rebook. So we grabbed that, too.

A few days later, we sat in the Wang Theatre among the other vaccinated or negative-testing patrons, all masked. Exactly 2 years from the date of our Broadway show. 

I even wore the same dress to commemorate the milestone.

And while it certainly felt different, it still felt wonderful.

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The shortest, and darkest, day of the Northern Hemisphere approaches. And yet, the winter solstice also means the days are getting slightly longer, though it will take a while to notice.

Tonight there’s the full Cold Moon to marvel. 

And the annual Ursids meteor shower to catch.

This year, though, the bright moon will make it harder to see those spectacular shooting stars.  

Be patient. 

Keep watching.

Don’t miss the show. ~

December 19, 2019. Moon Dance Begins Again.

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