Elizabeth Strout, Writing Without Judgment

Usually I’m thinking of mindfulness and I bring it to writing. Today, I’m thinking of writing and bringing it to mindfulness.

AIPRecently, 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.

Kovacs asked Strout how she avoids judgment when presenting her characters. Strout’s response:

It came to me a number of years ago that one of the things I love about writing, is that when I go to the page I suspend judgment. In real life, I’m probably as judgmental as the next person, because that’s how we maneuver through the world. We just become judgmental, which is tiresome. We do and we are and yet, when I go to the page, I just don’t care. I just have an open heart for my characters and so it’s a wonderful thing. It’s very freeing and it allows me to just report on what people are doing. Because you know that’s my job –  to show what we’re all up to or what some of us are up to.

She loves her characters – all of them – and because of this, there is no judgment, there is no melodrama.

Because melodrama is like good or bad. And in what I’m trying to do, I’m not interested in whether they are good or bad. I’m interested in the crevices of all those in-between spaces that most of us live in.

This is what makes Strout’s characters so authentic, so intriguing. Her love of her characters is infectious. It’s why we care so much about Lucy Barton and her mother in My Name is Lucy Barton – two women sitting in a hospital room gossiping about the people of their hometown.Lucy Barton

It got me thinking about how we create the melodramatic in our own lives. For each of us, there are people who strive to create it on a daily basis. Years ago, I decided not to cultivate these relationships. I understood that manufacturing melodrama was unnecessary and exhausting. In living life, enough tragic events will find you. Enjoy peace while you can.

In listening to Strout’s approach to her characters, it strikes me now that a lot of this manufactured melodrama is based on judgment. In each scenario, the creator is judging the others, whether they be co-workers, family or neighbors. It is a battle of good vs. evil, and the creator is always the good, the righteous. There must be winners and losers. Sometimes the co-workers, family or neighbors aren’t even aware they are engaged in the turmoil.

How would our lives change if we were mindful of our inclination to judge others? If we didn’t judge people constantly, wouldn’t we lose the melodrama too? If every action wasn’t in need of being judged as morally good or bad, if we merely viewed what was happening, would we see reality more clearly? Or as Strout says of judging her characters, if she is able “to rise above it and love them . . . I can write without melodrama.”

Some Pretty Deep Shit

True Refuge

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.

Once you’ve developed awareness, — this ability to focus and to understand that you are not your thoughts, worries, scheduling, etc. — you can bring it to a specific thought, “take a step backward” as Brach instructs, to delve in and find out what’s really happening and where it resides physically in your body. You may discover a core belief you have about yourself (most likely untrue), such as I’m a failure or I’m unworthy of love, and let it go. (I found the Investigating Core Beliefs chapter very helpful.)

While this is hard work, ultimately it will give you more freedom as you unburden yourself of all these things you unknowingly carry around in your mind and body that affect what you do and how you feel.

At the end of Brach’s book and the end of our class, we arrived at the point when we turned this awareness we’d been developing on awareness itself. We asked, Who is observing? Who is the seeker? And in asking this question, Brach tells us, the observer, the seeker disappears.

It is this line from True Refuge that stayed with me: “Rather than being a human on a spiritual path, we are spirit discovering itself through a human incarnation.”

I walked around for a week, thinking: This is what it’s like to be human. This is what it’s like to be cold. This is what it’s like to hear a bus as it reaches the stop on the corner. This body, this limited human life, is how we experience the universe and how the universe experiences itself.

As always these thoughts, these discoveries bring me back to writing. Isn’t this what we do as fiction writers? We sit and wonder what is like to be our characters? We inhabit them, but at a distance. We grow aware of their bodies, their thoughts, the hopes, fears, and desires, the core beliefs that have led them to their actions, their self-image. But we can’t get carried away by any of these things and go spiraling down the rabbit hole. We must “take a step back” and see what is actually happening to create meaning, to create art. If we do our job correctly, we the seeker, the writer, disappears. Our readers never feel our presence.

Fake News and the Writer’s Mind

Fake News

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.

Our Bubbles

People follow fake news because it supports their view of the world. In President Obama’s farewell speech, he said, “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. . . And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

Curating Our News Feeds

On social media, we cultivate a feed of fake news that supports our narrative of the world with tweets or posts with outrageous headlines such as: Watch this – So-and-so “annihilated” So-and so. The headlines become less true, until they’re outright lies. Even if we don’t click on the link, it sticks with us and our worldview is confirmed through inflammatory headline click bait. Our emotions keep churning and our bodies keep reacting as if we’re under threat. We don’t stop and question it. This exposure affects our mood; we grow angry or hopeless. We may not even be aware that we hate the world as a result of what we are reading on our social media, but it’s there eating away at our brains and our time.

The Writer’s News Feed

What is surprising is that we do this same thing to ourselves. We create our own bubbles, our own fake news feed about us and our writing. As we sit down to work, these thoughts come to the forefront of our minds. They are familiar, so familiar that there is a sense of comfort in their presence. Ah, yes, I know this thought pattern. It’s like a song you loved in high school, perhaps one you listened to while marinating a painful heartbreak. As writers, the lyrics go something like: What am I doing? This really sucks. Why do I bother? No one is ever going to read this. It’s all been written before, and better. I should be a bike messenger.

We become comfortable with that familiar negative loop and we reinforce it by looking for all the threads of information that support it. The deeper the mind gets into this fake newsfeed, the more and more untrue it becomes. We do not stop, we do not investigate, we do not challenge. We spend a lot of time questioning whether we should write, whether we have the ability to write. Sometimes this fake news goes through our brain without us even noticing it, which is dangerous because it is from this place we make decisions, it is from this place we create.

Stop, Breathe, and Write

This is where mindfulness can help. If we pause for a moment, take a breath and look at what our mind is doing, we can stop this before we go spiraling down that fake news feed about ourselves and our abilities. We need to question. We need to challenge, before we start to believe the worst about ourselves. Because when we believe these negative things about ourselves, we become stuck. We make bad choices. We limit ourselves and our world. The more attuned we become to the generation of fake news, the quicker we can catch ourselves. The quicker we can say – That’s not true. I see what you are doing and I’m stopping it right here. I’m not getting on that fake news ride. I’m writing, now shush.

Writing Toward Fiction

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.

Smith also brought me back to writing. Still Talking was the first thing I wrote after my husband’s death, and since then writing personal essays is where I seem to be. Try as I might, I have not been able to return to two different novels I have in progress. But these essays keep coming and so I sit with them. Perhaps, I think, I need to write a memoir. Get it out of my system and clear the way to return to fiction. Other novelists have done this—Ann Hood wrote about her five year old daughter’s sudden death in Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, Elizabeth McCracken wrote about the loss of her son in her ninth month of pregnancy in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, and, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert famously wrote about life after divorce and financial ruin in Eat Pray Love. All of them returned to fiction.

I picked up a copy of Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir to get a sense of what this memoir form was all about. She’s a poet, but began writing memoir – a genre she was drawn to from a very young age. In the preface, she talks about fiction versus memoir for her:

As I turn a novel’s pages, a first person narrator may seduce me, but the fact that it’s all made up and not actually outlived oddly keeps me from drawing courage outside the book’s dream.

For decades, I became lost in the stories of novels, experiencing what it was like to be a different sex, race, from a different country or time. I lived through slavery, war, love affairs and losses that were fictional, and yet I learned a lot. But after the experience of losing my in-laws and my husband, I needed to align myself with a real life survivor. I needed not to be in a novel’s “dream,” but present in the after life of a survivor. That was Patti Smith’s appeal, why she was able to open the doors to reading and writing for me. She had survived the deaths of her mother, her husband and her brother and had gone on to write about it. I took from her example that I too could survive by the very act of writing about it.

In the future I hope to return to fiction and, if I do,  I am certain it will be another writer’s work that leads me there.

The Real Work

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.

My friend author JoeAnn Hart, who writes with intelligence and wit about climate change in her fiction, posted on her Facebook page this poem by Wendell Berry:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

It was the next morning; I had decided to get back to work. My thinking was that what I needed and what the country needed was the same. Compassion and understanding. I write about love and loss and mindfulness. When I no longer knew what to do, that became my journey. And that is what I needed to do to move forward.

I am not alone in my feelings of bewilderment, in my difficulty in getting back to the page. A lot of writers have expressed their inability to write in the aftermath of the election. They are overwhelmed with fear and grief and surprise that so many in our nation would vote for a man who spouted racist, sexist, hurtful and hateful things during his campaign. There are others who feel they are being unfairly labeled as racists and sexist, etc., because they voted for Trump believing that he could affect change for them.

But Berry speaks to us of our real work coming to us at times like this. As a result of this election, many of us will write about our experiences now and during the next four years, others will be called to action and become activists for those causes we believe in, and others still will run for public office in the hope of affecting change. I recommend that we first breathe, sit with our anger, feel it, and release it. We can write through our anger, until we find a place of kindness, compassion and purpose. As writers, our job is to tell our stories with truth, so that readers gain insight as to what it is like to be us, to be our subjects, our characters. A communication of our shared humanity. Words—fiction, non-fiction, poetry and songs—can change hearts. This election should not shut us down, but raise us up. Give us motivation to take action by picking up the pen, sitting at the laptop, or strumming the guitar until the words come and the real work begins.

Discovering Mindfulness

Several years ago, I read a blog by a writer I was unfamiliar with at the time and it changed my life. The writer was Dani Shapiro, her blog is called On Being. In her post “On Beginning Again,” she writes about how writing and meditation are similar in that with each we must continually begin again. Each time we face the page or come to our mat is a new beginning, which can be daunting, but “We remain willing to feel our way through the darkness, to stop, take stock, breathe in, breathe out, begin again.  And again, and again.”

I wasn’t writing much at the time. My husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I had put aside writing and teaching to take care of him and my children. What appealed to me was this idea of beginning again. Being able to reboot throughout the day. I bought her memoir, Devotion, and read books by her teachers, Jack Kornfield in particular. When I took up meditating, it was frustrating. I became aware of how much my mind wandered into the past and into fantasy. I watched my thoughts try to take over again and again. Each time I would say to myself, “It’s okay, begin again,” giving myself little moments of forgiveness repeatedly for fifteen minutes a day.

I was certain that I wasn’t making any progress. Of course, that isn’t the purpose of mediation. That is why they call it a practice and not a mastering. But I showed up every day. And by showing up and being with whatever my mind presented, I was changing outside my practice. I forgave myself in small ways throughout the day. I found I had patience where I hadn’t before. Most importantly, I found acceptance of what was happening.

Meditating was instrumental in helping me live with the dying, knowing that this could be the last movie we watch, the last time we see these friends, the last time we have a romantic dinner, last birthday, holiday, kid’s soccer game or ski trip. It taught me how to stay present in the very last days, when the past didn’t matter and there was no future.

Almost two years after I started, meditation is still frustrating. I rarely find that I’ve calmed my mind or cleared my thoughts. My mind is still overactive; I have to bring it back to my breath hundreds of times, but I show up. And I have found that makes all the difference. Show up and be with what my practice is for the day.

Now as I come back to my writing after my husband’s death, I am learning the same about my writing. Just begin again, breathe. And most importantly, show up each and every day and be with what my writing practice has in store for me. Even if I write for fifteen minutes and it’s utter crap, I showed up. And whatever I discover in that time, follows me throughout the day.