Living In the Moment

Please welcome my guest today, Joan Z. Rough, an artist, writer and poet. In her comments below, Joan  muses about the challenge of living in the moment, a key theme in my recently released novel, A Fitting Place.

 

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right
                      now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant                                                    without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with                                                   the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this                                                                     way (which it won’t).”               James Baraz

living in the momentI love going out into my yard early in the morning to listen to the day awaken. With the first rays of sunlight, everything changes. Do you hear the woodpecker drumming on the old oak tree down the hill? There are baby crows nagging their parents to be quick about bringing them breakfast and the mockingbirds nesting in the cedar tree sound like they’re having an argument. Several robins are digging for worms and grubs not far from where I sit. A few houses down, a door slams and a child is whimpering. Traffic is picking up on Emmet Street, as commuters head off to work. The smell of eggs and bacon sizzling next door is making my stomach growl.  The huge expanse of deep blue sky is interrupted by a few fleecy clouds and the contrails of a jet liner going west.  Are the people on board sleeping or watching the landscape brighten with the sun below them?

Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?  It’s a meditation. An awareness of the space I’m sitting in, an understanding of where I am. It’s being in the moment, at ease, and recognizing the world around me without making judgments about it. It’s called mindfulness.

I leave my seat on the patio to go back inside. The television is blaring the morning news.  Headlines on the front page of the paper scream out about bombings in Iraq, who beat whom in the primaries a few states away, and why the loser can’t be gracious about his or her tough luck.  Lilly, the cat rubs against my legs and the dogs follow my every move, wondering where breakfast is and why I’m being so poky. The teakettle is whistling and I can’t decide which tea to choose. I’m slightly annoyed that Bill forgot to empty the trash last night. It’s beginning to overflow. Where do I put the banana peels and the empty dog food can?

Mindfulness is slipping away.

A few hours later I leave the grocery store and get stuck in traffic.  There is an accident up the road and there is no way for me to turn around so I can go home another way. I’m worried that the ice cream I just bought as a special treat will melt.  I’m supposed to meet with the plumber in thirty minutes. The laundry sink is plugged up. Traffic is still not moving and I know I’m going to be late.  I look for my phone, but it’s dead. I forgot to charge it last night. My head starts to pound and I’m frustrated and pissed off that the day is not going well. My gut is filled with churning rocks and a few tears surface in the corners of my eyes. My head is filled with words like unfair, how can I, I have to, and I can’t. This is not what I had planned for my day.

I’m not only stuck in traffic, I’m stuck inside of myself, worrying about what is going to happen if I’m late to meet the plumber. I’ve forgotten that the sun is still shining.  I don’t notice the homeless man standing a few cars ahead of me holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Homeless and Hungry.  Please help. God Bless You.”  I can’t hear anything but the ranting going on in my head. I haven’t thought of or sent healing prayers to those who may have been injured in the accident just up the street. I rummage through my purse for something sweet to chew on, thinking it will calm my nerves.  I’m spinning off into a melt down and everything is about me, Me, and ME.

What happened to the profound peace, the sense of mindfulness, I felt earlier in the day?  Life doesn’t always provide us with a tree we can sit under and a chorus of birdsong.  More often than not, it sends us a traffic jam, a serious argument with a friend, a life changing injury, deadlines at work, and the overwhelming speed with which the world travels around us. It’s about what we label the good and the bad. It includes the beautiful melody sung by a wood thrush, as well as the gun shots I hear in the distance that send shivers up my spine.  It includes what I see, taste, smell, and touch. It includes my nasty thoughts about someone I’m not fond of and the delight I feel for the small boy I watch looking at a window display of toy trains. He is smiling and talking to himself.

I’m easily triggered by certain words, the way someone looks at me, or the sounds of a nearby siren.  As a small child I learned to be attuned to the way my father looked. When his eyes grew very dark, and the tone of his voice grew lower, I tried to make myself invisible.  When he hummed to himself and his eyes twinkled with mischief I knew everything was all right. When my mother had a glass of wine or a Manhattan in a restaurant at dinner, I knew we were in for trouble.  I was always anticipating or worrying about things I had done.

I’ve come late to mindfulness and find it extremely difficult to maintain. But when I manage to breathe deeply and pause before I react, being in the present moment keeps me in touch and in tune.  It’s a way to find ease in this crazy world and helps me to remain calm and at peace in whatever situation I find myself in.

The next time you find yourself worrying about tomorrow or something you said or did last week, take a deep breath, and be in the moment before getting caught up in the sticky web of life.

 

DSC_2659Joan Rough is an artist, poet, and writer of nonfiction.  Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, and are included in the anthology, Some Say Tomato, by Mariflo Stephens. Her first book, AUSTRALIAN LOCKER HOOKING: A New Approach to a Traditional Craft, was published in 1980. She is currently at work on her upcoming memoir, ME, MYSELF AND MOM, A Journey Through Love, Hate, and Healing.

You can follow Joan’s blog on her website at http://joanzrough.com

Twitter:      https://twitter.com/JoanZRough

Facebook:   www.facebook.com/joanz.rough

 

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Learning to See the Other

 

 

You are a person only if someone else thinks you are a person 
                                                                    — South African proverb

 

See the otherThe dehumanizing impact of labels and stereotypes—the losses we suffer when we fail to see the other as a human being with his or her own unique story—was the subject of Naomi Tutu’s presentation to my Rotary group last Friday morning.

Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has been a long-time activist for human rights.  She began her comments with a compelling portrait of a young girl growing up under apartheid. No one in the audience was surprised when she described a world that viewed her as a member of the class of “black women,” someone who had no story apart from her blackness.

Similarly, no one was surprised to hear that she had viewed white South Africans as members of a class who had no story apart from their role as “oppressors.” Under apartheid, legal, social, political and historical barriers made it difficult for both whites and black to see the other as individuals—to see the other in terms of individual aspirations, fears and delights.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

But Tutu got our attention when she observed that the white oppressors were themselves oppressed, the victims of a self-imposed oppression. Yes, white South Africans as a class had wealth and privilege and opportunities denied to the blacks. But individually, many South Africans lived in a state of nearly constant fear of the violence provoked by decades of apartheid.

Naomi TutuThis insight came during her first visit to South Africa after she had finished college and started working in the United States. Proud of her spanking new credit card and driver’s license, she rented a car for the drive to her family home. Like all black drivers in that era, she was stopped at a police checkpoint. When she was told to get out of the car, she complied but “with attitude.” As she waited, annoyed and resentful, for the officer to search her car, she watched his face. It took her only moments to realize that the young policeman—in a position of power and with a gun—was clearly terrified of what she, “a black woman,” might do to him.

In an effort to calm his fear, she talked about her visit to her family and asked about his family. They talked, as human beings with a shared humanity, for a quarter of an hour before she went on her way. I had an image of the policeman waving her off with a smile, of her looking back with a grin to wave at him.

That was only one of many stories she shared. All of them spoke to the essence of being a person, of recognizing the unique stories of each and everyone of us. Tutu spoke movingly about the hurt we cause as well as the opportunities we miss when we fail to recognize and honor our shared humanity.

The weight of Tutu’s words struck me again only moments after her presentation ended. As I crossed the Drake campus toward my car, I found myself recoiling, intellectually if not physically, from a young man with heavily tattooed arms in a rainbow of green, red, yellow and blue. Mine was a shamefully elitist reaction, not unlike that of the white South Africans who saw only “a black woman.” Perhaps this young man was an honors student or a faculty member. Perhaps he was a loving husband and father. What right did I have to assume that that the color of his skin would tell me anything about his humanity?

How often do you fail to recognize our shared humanity, to truly see the other?

 

Tutu’s presentation reprised one of the key themes—the corrosive impact of stereotypes—in my novel, A Fitting Place, although my focus has been on gender rather than race. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on how stereotypes have affected your life. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion with a guest blog, please contact me here.

 

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Finding my Voice – From Finance to Fiction

 

As with last week, my blog is reprinted from a guest blog linked to the launch of A Fitting Place.  This was hosted on February 17, 2014 by Susan Weidener on her website, Women’s Writing Circle.

 

images-1As a voracious reader, I’ve always known that the author’s “voice” is critical to making a story come alive. But for many years, I assumed that voice came from just the right blend of word usage, syntax, humor, and tone.  I saw it as a skill, much constructing a proper sentence from nouns, verbs, and grammar principles. Knowing that each author’s voice is unique, I knew it wasn’t as simple as that, but for many years, that analogy seemed apt.

This delusion was fostered by the fact that, as a scribbler since childhood, writing was how I communicated what was in my mind. Writing was how I connected the dots.  It was how I made sure I hadn’t left out some critical piece of data. It was how I avoided drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence.

From my perspective, writing was how I gave voice to the jumble of ideas careening around in my head.

By the time I finished college, my writing skills were substantial. Whether I was writing an essay for a college professor, a report for a financial client or a guest editorial for the New York Times, I knew how to pen an elegant sentence.  I knew how to explain a complex concept in simple terms, how to build a persuasive case for a particular point of view. Once I knew what I wanted to say, I always founds the words I needed to say it.

And so, when I sat down to work on the first draft of my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, at age 60, I expected the words to flow readily from my brain onto the page. Lots of words did indeed spill out, but I soon discovered they were not the ones I needed. “It’s your story, but I don’t see you on the page,” said one member of my writing group. “The woman in this story doesn’t sound like you,” offered a second.

Their message was clear: despite my demonstrable writing skills, I did not have a “voice.”

I tried a number of ways to find that voice, not least of which was mimicking aspects of my favorite contemporary authors—Kingsolver, Kidd, Wolitzer, among others. The result was stilted prose that yielded no insight whatsoever into two offbeat people who abandoned successful careers to sail around the world in a small boat.

In fact, the problem was not about getting the language and tone just right, but of knowing what story I wanted to tell. For all those years as a professional writer, I focused on the facts, on the logic of the case, on the information and evidence that responded to the needs of my audience. I had labored long and hard to remove “me” and any personal perspective from everything I wrote. It was an ideal role for an introvert who disliked being on center stage.

Unfortunately, I had left “me” out of the first draft of Moonbeam, emphasizing instead where we went and what we saw, as if the uniqueness of the places we visited was sufficient to make the story interesting. But readers of memoir and fiction are looking for new ideas and experiences, for unexpected perspectives. Even with stories that take place in unfamiliar settings, readers want that “shiver of recognition,” the sense that the author has connected with the emotions and values of the reader’s own life.

Through the questions and criticisms of my writers’ group, I discovered that my voice lay not in using just the right words, but in telling the story as I experienced it. It was exhilarating to watch my voice emerge once I began to give pride of place to my own personality and perspective, once I began to tell “my” story instead of “the” story.  It has been a different, but equally exhilarating challenge to find my voice in my forthcoming novel, A Fitting Place, which is not “my” story, but on an imaginary story as I might experience it.

But perhaps what is most exhilarating about finding my voice as a writer is that the introverted me—the one who tended to stand at the edges of most social situations–has also found my voice in every day life. Having learned to tell “my” story, it no longer matters whether I am telling it on the page or at the dinner table.

Have you found your voice?  How did you find it?

 

In the next few weeks, I will resume my blog on the universal human relationship issues that affect my characters in my novel, A Fitting Place.  I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.  If you’d like to contribute, please contact me here

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Memoir Vs. Fiction

 

Memoir vs. FictionIn conjunction with the launch of A Fitting Place, I’ve been invited to contribute to the websites and blogs of other writers who share my fascination with the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone.  

For the next few weeks, my blog will showcase these “hosted” essays.

The post below was published on June 3rd by Amy Sue Nathan on her thought-provoking website “Women’s Fiction Writers.”  

 

Memoir Vs. Fiction: Training Wheels for A Novelist

I am often asked which is the “better” vehicle—a memoir or a novel—for a story that has some basis in fact. As the author of both a memoir and a novel, I resist the notion that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for the reader or the writer. What I do believe is that for a newbie writer, a memoir is a much better place to start.

Unlike fiction, the outer boundaries of a memoir are defined before the first word hits the page. As a memoirist, you “know” where the story begins and where it ends, who the players are and what they’re like. As a memoirist, the number of your plot points and scenes are constrained by reality. Your job is to connect the dots, not make them up.

But getting the dots down on paper does not a memoir make. Knowing where the story begins and ends is not the same as having a strong story arc with identifiable turning points and scenes that propel the story forward. Knowing why your story matters is not the same as having a sympathetic protagonist that readers will care about, a protagonist with a clearly defined desire line that creates tension and keeps the reader turning the page. Knowing the players and their personalities is not the same as having complex and multi-dimensional characters whose strengths elicit our admiration and whose foibles gain our empathy.

In other words, a well-written memoir should read like fiction.

Learning the Writerly Craft

One advantage of starting your creative writing career as a memoirist is that, when you get it wrong in your first draft, you have fewer things to fix.

As a memoirist, you can’t change the trajectory of events, so you have to focus on doing a better job of building tension and establishing cause and effect within whatever storyline you have. You learn, by trial and error, which events move the story forward and how it feels when your story begins to unfold organically. You learn that ruthlessly cutting out events that serve no plot purpose can heighten the emotional truth of your story, with little damage to factual accuracy.

Similarly, as the author of a memoir, you can’t create new scenes or new characters out of whole cloth. All you can do is focus on re-writing those that are flat, on learning how to make them come alive, on using them more effectively to carry the plot forward. Your focus is on mastering the art of showing vs. telling, on finding the right balance between dialogue and narrative. You learn that what you don’t say often has as much dramatic potential as what you do say. Above all, you have some sense of what you’re aiming for as you try to repair a crippled story.

Learning to be a good writer is never easy, but it feels more manageable when you’re tackling a memoir than the bad first draft of a novel. With an infinite number of possible events, scenes and characters from which to choose, even an experienced writer can have trouble discerning whether a problem lies in the writing, in the story arc and structure, in the pace, in selection of characters, or some combination of them all. For a neophyte, sorting it out is all but impossible.

By the time I began my novel, I had some solid skills in constructing a story arc, both for the book as a whole and for each chapter along the way. I knew how to use dialogue and develop my characters through judicious use of scenes. I had a lot to learn, but completing the memoir gave me the confidence to attack one problem at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Without the memoir, there never could have been a novel.

Finding Your Voice

Another advantage of starting with a memoir is that it is easier for a newly-minted author to find her “voice” in a memoir than in a novel.

As a voracious reader, I recognized “voice” when I saw it, but I certainly couldn’t define it. When I turned my hand to creative writing, I had no idea how to find my own voice. That was hardly a surprise, as I’d spent many years as a writer in a business context, where I made a conscious effort to silence anything that might be considered a personal point of view.

Looking back, I’m convinced the dreariness of the first draft of my memoir was due in no small measure to the lack of a distinctive voice. But as I re-wrote and re-crafted and re-organized my story around situations I had lived through and people I knew well—as I got closer and closer to a story that read like fiction—my voice began to emerge.

Could that have happened if I’d started out with a novel, where all the elements—story arc, scenes, and characters—were potentially in flux? I doubt it.

Priming the Pump

Writerly skills are for naught unless you have something you want to write about.

The story behind my memoir—a mid-life coming-of-age experience after I left a successful career to sail around the world at age 40—had steeped in my brain for two decades before I put pen to paper. Not once, in all those years, did the possibility of writing a novel ever occur to me.

As the memoir unfolded and my voice emerged, however, I began to see that “the story” was much bigger than “my story.” Sailing on the open ocean was a metaphor for life: you can’t control your environment, the path is not well marked, and you often end up someplace other than where you set out to go. The lesson of that voyage, a lesson that changed my life, was that you learn the most when you step outside your comfort zone.

Suddenly I had a story with almost infinite variations. I itched to explore them. Voilà, my first novel.

It will not be my last.

 

I have loved the contributions of guest bloggers who resonate with the “relationship” issues addressed in A Fitting Place.  If you would like to be a contributor to the discussion, please contact me here.