When the Words Breathe

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A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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The Abundance by Annie Dillard

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Growing up, did you have that slick and sneaky friend who lured you through the slit chain-link fences or the windows left unlocked, into restricted zones, behind the STAY OUT signs, into the smoky dim rooms packed with music so loud it turned your senses sideways? Annie Dillard is that friend.

Dillard, Annie. The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (essay collection)

Summary: The collection mixes and mingles Dillard’s classics, such as “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” with newer narrative sojourns. Every essay delivers on abundance. Profuse ideas. Overflowing sensory experiences. So much world and so much life to experience and notice and not always fully understand.

Critique: Reading Dillard is a lot like trailing that trickster friend. The bad boy or girl who—with nothing more than a casual c’mon shoulder flick—convinced you to abandon your good sense and go on a reckless adventure. Back then, you would have kept this friend around to piss off your parents. These days, you likely need someone like Dillard to free you from reality’s constraints. Her prose white rabbits you down a dark tunnel where space and air run out. Suddenly, you’re twisted into impossible positions and too disoriented to find your way out. Here, and only here, can you begin to reconstruct your life, reconfiguring your self’s shape to suit the alternate universes floating around you at all times.

For example, in the opening essay, “Total Eclipse,” Dillard escorts the reader up a hillside to watch the sun disappear from the sky. The next thing you know, she’s oiled you into a sideways experience of the eclipse. The sky doesn’t go dark, it saturates. The surface colors of all things go platinum or bronze plate about to peel. Then Dillard peels time. She scrapes off the present moment because the world is now a patina’d photograph, evidence of a civilization long gone. The whole framework of the essay shifts and the reader is no longer in a familiar contemporary setting—the typical and common reality—but some prehistoric time warp.

To be fair, Dillard warned the readers about the tilt when she explained, “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him….” One event may precede the other, but it doesn’t prepare you for the second.

Some critics like to tout how Dillard is a nut. She’s crazy and thus her prose go crazy (see the “Forward” to The Abundance…er, don’t actually. It is academic treacle and will give your brain a tummy ache.) I agree that Dillard’s perspective is skewed. All her dials her cranked to “bizarre.” But, I also think Dillard gives voice to the mad-hatter moments we all encounter but then keep pocketed, far far away from our social media status updates. She is willing to admit that reality bears side doors—all of them unlocked.

“The Weasel” illustrates this common, momentary madness. Dillard and a weasel startle each other in the woods. Both freeze. They examine each other, assessing the threat level. In that instance of scrutiny, their brains merge…or more accurately, trade places. But then a blink severs them. The weasel darts into a burrow. Anyone who has had an encounter with a wild animal (not in a zoo, but actually out in the wild) knows this exchange, but only Dillard is willing to admit it happens. She even wishes she’d had the instincts to lock her jaws around the weasel’s throat because one can learn from the wild animals “something of the purity of living in the physical senses.” And from the encounter, she formulates a glorious maxim for how to be truly alive:

The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.

She goes on, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”

Oh boy, if that isn’t fine advice for anyone running down a dream!

Dillard returns to this notion of the fearless, dauntless lifestyle in “A Writer in the World.” She coaches all writers to “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Why?

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

True to her word, Dillard delivers. Like any good, slick, trickster friend, she gives countless opportunities to shirk the norm. The Abundance is replete with fresh ways to see and experience the world. Every essay is an invitation from Dillard to slip past the caution tape and delight the senses. Not only that, but to develop entirely new senses streamlined for stalking, sneaking, and fully soul’ing your existence to life’s varied realities.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

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Imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux.

Peck, Richard. The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail. Illus. Kelly Murhpy. New York: Puffin Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: middle grade historical fiction

Summary: Days before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a nameless mouse runs away from the bullies at school. From then on, he is swept into a misadventure maelstrom. The book jacket will tell you he has a plan to speak with the Queen and that he goes on an epic adventure, but do not believe it…

Critique: At first, I thought I’d adore the nameless mouse whose tail kinked into a question mark shape. He was cheeky, mouthing off to bullies and overly disciplinarian adults. But as the narrative continued, I could not fathom how such a mouse could lack so much gumption. Once the catalyst shoots him out of his A-world and into the B-world, the little mouse does next to nothing unless another character tells him to. He either whines about his miserable circumstances or he watches the world pass by.

According to the text, his observant nature stems from that tail. He’s curious. He’s full of questions, like why doesn’t he have a name and who were his parents and wouldn’t Queen Victoria know the answers because wise monarchs who have sat on the thrown for 60 years ought to know everything?

The mouse formulates this last notion in chapter 3 and the book jacket would have you believe that his yearning to see the Queen is what sparks an “epic adventure.” But as I warned you, don’t believe it. The ensuing larks around and in Buckingham Palace are not the result of his deliberate actions or choices to fulfill the desire. Instead, he travels about like a staticky sock, clinging to whatever (or whomever) happens to be closest. He attaches to a cat in the stables, then a horse out for a ride, then palace guard mice capture him and enlist him in service, then bats capture him, and then andthenandthen…

He remembers his “desire” to see the queen on page 88 and not again until somewhere around page 146. He is what screenwriter Blake Snyder calls a Johnny Entropy. A lead character with no lead.

Writers, beware this protagonist. You’ll know when one has snuck into your story because all the other characters will have to luggage him around or tell him what to do, when he ought to know, with a bottle rocket’s urgency, what he wants.

Not wishing to be disingenuous, I should also point out that the nameless mouse could not have exerted much agency or autonomy even if he tried because he lives like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Everyone watches him always. Everyone is in on a secret and, thus, allows no harm to come to the mouse. They keep him on their chosen path and prevent any and all goings astray. Why? No spoilers here. They just do.

And its that cloistering the smallest individual from independence that makes me wonder how young readers respond to this book. Their entire lives resemble a sort of Truman Show. Always watched and passed from one to the next adult sentinel. They follow a predetermined script. Do they resonate with the nameless mouse or do they wish he’d rebel, elude his keepers and truly strike out on his own, as Truman does.

Which leads us back to the opening prompt: imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux for it is one worth writing.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

You’ve eaten…maybe prayed…definitely loved. Now it’s time to get magical in some very practical ways.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, creative inspiration

Summary: The sage and witty writer who brought you the worldwide bestseller, The Misadventures of a Messed-up Woman Traveling Through Three Countries in Three Months, All to Find the True Source of Joy (alternately and succinctly titled Eat, Pray, Love) returns to tell creative types and would-be creative types: own your soul and go make something today!

Critique: I will often recommend this as a craft book to writers, even though it does not tell them how to better hone the craft of writing. It will, however, help them craft a better soul more suited to the lifelong pursuit of writing!

While each “chapter” of this text is only a paragraph or three, the book feels densely packed with fresh perspectives on the value of and necessity for living creatively. For instance, Gilbert notes that as a species, humans took up art at least 40,000 years ago. Surprisingly, we only bothered with agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That means we found it more important to make attractive, superfluous items than to reliably feed ourselves!

Gilbert gives everyone a permission slip to be creative and express themselves. And I mean that literally and figuratively. She reminds readers to get off the tightrope slung between “I suck” and “I am greatest.” Stand firmer on the grounds of, “I am here.” That’s it. Neither bad, nor good. Just here. And while here, entitled to your own voice and vision.

She also surmises that if you feel the urge to create, but too often ignore it, then you’ll likely spend your time destroying something. A bank account, a relationship, or maybe your own self-esteem.

Just as in Eat, Pray, Love, readers will find here Gilbert’s signature style, which never strays far from nakedly honest, graciously humble, and fantastically witty. Her voice — whether on the page or recorded for audiobooks — is reassuring, kind, and invigorating. It’s a voice so comforting I’ve started using it whenever my negative, snitty inner critic begins to gabble on about what a joke I am. Before that crank gets on a roll, I remind myself that my inner critic is NOT my inner editor. My inner editor loves my work and it tells me (in Liz Gilbert’s charming, sparkling voice) how much it wants me to succeed!

So, is there a project you’re dodging? A dream you’ve harbored but never sailed on open waters? Maybe it’s time to stop making excuses and start making big magic.

Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.