As promised I’m reporting back on last months’ meditation of selecting a word that represents what the story I’m working on is about, in the hope that it would help me move forward in writing my novel. I selected the word anger, because I got the sense my narrator still held a lot of anger about the events that happened during the summer she is recounting. I expected that underneath that anger was sadness, disappointment, confusion and blame. I sat in meditation saying the word anger with my narrator in mind. What came up was truly unexpected.
Thoughts are real, but not true
I’m taking the Power of Awareness online course with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield – two of my favorite mindfulness teachers. In her talk “Thoughts are real, but not true,” Brach explains that thoughts are real in the sense that we are having them and in that our bodies and minds are reacting as if they are happening. For instance, if you are thinking of an argument you had in the past, a messy break up, or a scary walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood, your body will tense up and emotions will arise in you as if you are in that place and time.
Remembering Who We Are
This week I finally got around to watching Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a Netflix documentary directed by Didion’s nephew Griffen Dunne. I highly recommend it whether you are already a fan of Joan Didion or about to become one. In it, she talks about starting out writing for magazines in New York, returning to California, writing her novels and essays, her marriage, adopting her daughter Quintana and the death of her husband. It takes you up to her latest book, Blue Nights, which is about her daughter’s death. You feel as if you seen her whole story, but I’m certain she still has things to offer.
As writers we can feel we are in competition with other writers. At times, it feels like everyone we know fancies themselves a writer. Then there are the writers we do know, who are getting published annually, monthly, weekly. There are great writers we read who make us want to throw up our hands and say, “Forget about it. I’ll never write anything that good.” And then, there are those writers we see and think, “What the hell? That piece of crap got published? That piece of crap is selling millions?! I give up.”
If only it was that simple. If only we would let it be that simple.
There are those beautiful, yet elusive, times when both the ideas and the words to convey them come pouring forth. But then there are those times our creativity is balled up in a fist, holding its treasures tightly. As much as we struggle to pry it open one finger at a time, it won’t budge.
Usually I’m thinking of mindfulness and I bring it to writing. Today, I’m thinking of writing and bringing it to mindfulness.
Recently, I saw Elizabeth Strout at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She’s on tour for her latest novel Anything Is Possible. Instead of giving a reading – the book had just come out – Strout was in conversation with the library’s events Assistant Director, Laura Kovacs. Listening to her talk about how she approaches writing and how she feels about her characters, I completely fell in love with her. She is smart, funny and wise.
This winter I took a course based on Tara Brach’s book True Refuge with Penn Mindfulness Director Michael Baime. Over the course of eight weeks, he guided us through its complex ideas and intense exercises. This was hard work, but very rewarding.
As I’ve written before, when you first start practicing mindfulness, the focus is often on the breath. The goal is to become acquainted with our minds, since we spend much of our time on autopilot. When you actually sit and watch what your mind does, you can feel overwhelmed. Your mind is all over the place and you have little control over whether it dives into a dreadful memory or is already planning a romantic interlude with the person behind you in the checkout line. You learn to let go of each of these thoughts as they arise and return to your breath as an anchor.
The 2016 election brought about the recognition that there is a lot a fake news out in the world that people believe is true. Fake News on websites, television and newspapers report on rumor or hearsay without checking if the sources are reliable. Some venues report outright lies about politicians, policy, current events and history. News anchors state their opinions as fact, and even their opinions aren’t based on fact.
After my husband died, everything was difficult. Most upsetting, I couldn’t escape into a fictional world, into the head of a narrator. I couldn’t read. That is until I started Patti Smith’s M Train. Only then could I return to words on the page. It wasn’t until months later that I understood why. The reason I finally was able to read again was because Smith wrote about her life, the life she had survived in order to write about it. She was a widow and she’d created something truly beautiful in her book.
I admit I wasn’t of much use last Wednesday, the day after the election. I took the day to sit with my anger, my disappointment, and really my grief. In practicing mindfulness, you bring your awareness in the present moment. I tried to do that by not creating lists of the things that could have been done differently, not wishing that Trump supporters voted differently, not fantasizing about what could have been or projecting the worst that could be. Instead, I tried just sitting with the fact that Trump was the President Elect. It was difficult, but I sat with my emotions, giving them space, feeling them in my body and releasing them.