I’ve written about this before. I must have. Unless I haven’t and it’s all been in my mind. I do a lot of talking in my mind but not out loud. I think writer’s do this a lot.
The third piece of the story.
My best friend, Joe DePalmo, was hit by a train when I was 13. We were the kind of friends who saw each other every single day. Living on the same block helped. He left school on a day filled with rain and thunderstorms. I don’t know why he left. No one does. He wore thick glasses. He crossed a railroad track and was hit by the LIRR. They announced it over the loudspeaker in 8th period while I sat next to his empty seat in math class.
Write what you know.
I wrote about it in 10th grade for an essay competition in school. I didn’t win because my spelling was so terrible – seriously I placed but didn’t win. I’m so grateful for spell-check now. The piece of writing is gone. I never got it back. I’ve tried to rewrite the essay a few times but just can’t do it. So it worked its way through my subconscious, into my conscious, and after 42 years into the life of Illya Kuryakin Cruz-Archer – IC for short. IC’s 16. He plays a tabletop miniatures game called 40-K and he practices yoga and his parents are HIV positve and Brad Sologashvilles just gave him the Mark of Zorro.
May I be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga and changing my mind, by Cyndi Lee is a memoir about why women hate their bodies and a primer on how to take your yoga practice and use it in your daily life.
Let me put this out there.
I picked this up because Ms. Lee is a yogi who is internationally known for her teachings (yoga and mindfulness meditation) and I’ve read and enjoyed two of her previous books, Yoga Body Buddha Mind (which I loved as a book about yoga and practice and mindfulness) and Om Yoga: a guide to daily practice (which I have used in my own daily practice). I took classes and workshops at her Om yoga studio (before she lost her lease last year and now has a wandering studio) and it was one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been too.
So I think she’s great.
But here’s the thing.
This memoir is written by a dancer, yogi, celebrity with connections to Cyndi Lauper and Jamie Lee Curtis, who travels to India and is in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) during the horrible earthquakes two years ago. She meets famous gurus (because she can). And is obsessed with her body – she has been taught, to just like so many women by our wonderfully patriarchal misogynistic society. She comes from a privileged position at the top of her field so take that into consideration too.
What am I saying?
I tried to read Eat Pray Love twice and both times I couldn’t get more than twenty pages in. Why? Because I just didn’t care about the main character. She was like the three women in Sex and the City – I just didn’t care about them. Okay, okay. I’m a guy so that’s a problem too. It was hard for me to connect but still. The Sarah Jessica Parker character always complained about her life and I found it hard to feel sorry for her. She lived a good life, in a comfortable home, had plenty of money, dated lots of men, had good friends. What was she complaining about? Anyway a sympathetic character helps to keep the attention of this reader. Also, I know, I’m not the target audience for these shows/books so know that too. As a reader I’m in the minority as the book Eat Pray Love is a best seller and people have told me how much they loved it – just not me.
Back to Cyndi Lee before I go off again. I read within the context of my experience. I can’t help that. But I also can learn. That I can help.
So Cyndi… She wrote her memoir about why she hates or why “women” hate their bodies because she does and was taught to. As a “role model” to so many women, she thought it would help other women to explore this issue. Again, I had a hard time during the first part of the book because she is so successful and whining about her squishy parts (her term). This is a woman who does not have visible squishy parts. But she is also dealing with aging, and a mother who is dying, and a husband who has issues – let’s just leave it at that. These aspects of who she is, when taken as a fuller tapestry of who she is were fascinating and brave to speak about. I read on because I wanted to learn more about her. These other stories made her more vulnerable to me, as a reader. She puts herself out there and that is a brave thing to do.
But the most interesting aspect of the book and the main reason I read on was because she used a yogic filter for all of her experiences and that filter was fascinating. I teach in yoga class that we practice in class so that we can take it out into the world. She does this and uses herself as an example. She lives what she teaches and this direct application of yogic philosophy hooked me. Anything else would have been an interesting memoir but this raises it above that status and into another – at least if you’re a yogi or yogini.
One other thing from a writer’s perspective also caught my eye. She leaves out information about her relationship with her husband at a key point of the book which I will not reveal as it’s a spoiler for the memoir. But the absence of information is powerful in how it allows me to see her. Deep pain can be described or it can be inferred. It’s like in a movie when the director has a choice to either show the murder or show a shadow of the murder. Each can be powerful but what is not shown is filled in by the imagination of the reader. Some readers of Cyndi’s memoir may get angry because she leaves this out. As a writer I was fascinated by the story the shadow told me.
Now here’s a question for you. With a little punctuation, how many different meanings can you make with the title of this blog post?
I’ve thought about this a lot.
There are a lot of writers out there writing about how to write novels, how to write stories, how to write right, how to write wrong.
I’ve written some posts about the writing process in this blog and as a guest poster for some friends but no matter what angle I write about I just don’t think I’m bringing much new to the discussion. The best of them, like Andrew Smith’s “How to Write A Novel parts 1-4 and counting…) make me laugh at the absolute insanity (there ain’t no sanity-clause) that is the world of publishing and the writing life (whatever that is).
But I keep feeling like there’s something I can offer. I’m just not sure what I can bring to the table.
Salt and pepper?
Brussel sprouts? Okay I really don’t like Brussel sprouts so let’s not talk about them ever again. Seriously. I can eat just about anything but brussel sprouts. I get a gag reflex just thinking about those little green balls of sprout. So let’s stay off the brussel sprouts.
Here’s two bits of advice I can give. It’s not much but it’s only January 20th so work with me.
Both bits of advice you’re heard a million times before – I’m sure – so I’ll try to give each a different context to make them sound important and fresh. Or at least not stale. I’m not sure why I’m stuck on food analogies but hopefully they will work their way off… the table.
The first bit of advice comes from a man named Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009 and was one of the great yogis (not as in bear but as in the yoking of the physical and the spiritual) of our time – and developed the style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. I never met him but I wish I had. I have been to yoga studios that he taught in and spoke in so I got to soak up some of his vibe but that’s about it. Still his influence on yoga in the 20th century has been great.
Anyway I digress. Whenever students asked him when they would achieve the next level of anything in their yoga practice (or their life) he would say, “Practice and all is coming.” I think it works the same way for writing.
The other bit of advice I’ve been told and passed on to others just like many many other writers is if you want to be a writer you need to read – a lot. The only thing I can add to that is to read everything, not just the classics, but all genres, good writing and bad writing. I say this because it has worked that way for me. Everything I read is like a short course in how to write, what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help myself. If I was a Brussel sprout farmer I would see all food through the lens of a brussel sprout. As I writer I read on two levels, for pleasure, and to understand why I like or dislike what I’m reading. This can be summed up as, do what works for you as a reader and don’t do what doesn’t.
For example, I read Robert Jordan’s first book in the Wheel of Time Series (many friends recommended it to me) and was driven crazy (there still ain’t no sanity-clause) by the number of characters that muttered. He muttered. She muttered. We muttered. They muttered. You familiar muttered. So… I try not to have characters mutter. I also learned from that book (I only read the first book in the series so I can’t say if this is so about the other books in the series) to make sure that things happen in my writing. Jordan was a beloved writer, just not by me. Little happened in that first book and it was a long book for little to happen in. So… having things happen is good. Not having things happen is bad. I try to make sure when I write that things happen.
So this year I’ll be trying something new on my blog in my own personal attempt not to mutter, to make things happen, not to eat brussel sprouts, and to bring back the sanity-clauss.
I’ll be writing about the books that I read during the year and telling you what I learned from reading each of them. And if there’s one thing I know about my own writing it is that I have a lot to learn.
Maybe this is something I can bring to the table.
I relate a lot of things to the Yoga Sutras. I teach yoga so in some ways that makes sense. It’s also one of the few philosophical texts that I’ve read multiple times. I find it a fascinating exploration of the human mind and the journey within. I also think it has lessons for the real world today – even if it is over 3000 years old in written form and who knows how many in verbal. Because I find writing such a challenging and inward looking activity I can’t help but connect the two. Besides I’m practical. If you can’t take a practice, like yoga, and apply it to the real world then what good is it?
More than 3000 years ago, people were exploring the journey inward toward the Self. You can define the self any way you want to – capital S or small, Goddess, God, core of creativity, cosmic stuff, watcher in the field, observing I, your navel gazing core. It doesn’t matter whether your mystical or material, so long as you journey within.
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. So these guys, went up to caves, sat cross-legged for hours if not days, did not eat, and tried to meditate – or travel inward – mapping as they travelled inside their heads. They had visions – who wouldn’t? They had dreams – you bet. The Yoga Sutras are a map of their adventures – not a map in the traditional way we think of but a series of short sayings that delineated the way complete with noted obstacles, traps, dead ends, and helpful hints. You just have to figure out what it means today as opposed to what it meant 3000 years ago. Oh yeah, and interpret the verse.
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. How does this relate to writing? I’m stretching here. I know. But that’s how I grow. When I find stillness, I write best. I can tap into my creative self and write. I can’t write when my mind is racing in different directions; when I’m worrying about deadlines; when my anxiety is high; when there are distractions – any distractions – from Facebook to Twitter, to my dog asking to go out, to my email, to my physical practice, to my son asking me to help him with his homework, to my wife asking me to take out the garbage – in other words just about any and all of life. How do I deal with these things and sit down and start to write? Every writer has their own technique. Some write in the morning before everyone else awakens. Some go to coffee shops and plug in ear phones to shut out the rest of the world. Some stare at their computer screen or out a window at birds nesting. I think in all these ways we do a similar thing.
We withdraw from the world.
We go within.
And we write.
I still the patterning of my consciousness and look within. I follow the map. I search for a well of creativity, find a well – sometimes just a patch of wet earth, sometimes a bucket full and I dive into it.
It has been called “flow” in more modern times. It is a moment in time when you exist as one with what you’re doing. Sometimes it lasts moments and I go back and forth between flow and distraction. I hate that. It’s frustrating and hard to work that way. I don’t get much done. But if I keep at it I get something done. Those are the days the word count increases at a snail’s pace.
Other times I disappear inside and come out half an hour later (my normal morning writing time) and three pages have been written.
The more often we do this as writers – the more often we practice – make writing a practice (something we do every day) – the more we get done. The easier it becomes to follow the map inward. And here’s the thing. Even if the path shifts sometimes, new obstacles arise, old ones disappear or reappear in different forms – the yoga sutra has them all mapped out for us.
At least I think it does.
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras some 3,000 years ago. Of course he wasn’t really the writer in the sense that he came up with them. He took what had been an oral tradition of verse, like the Vedas, India’s sacred texts, and put them down on paper. He codified the words so they could be remembered, forgotten, read and remembered again.
I’m using the Yoga Sutras in my yoga classes this month as a way to provide intention to the sequences and rhythms of the class. So much of yoga is about intention and focus. Without them it is just a physical exercise class. With them it teaches the great inward journey through the mind and down towards the soul of great cosmic “stuff”. Seriously. I’m not kidding. Every class opens the great doors of the mind and offers training for the journey in. Each reading of the Sutras I find new paths to follow and this text fascinates me.
I was thinking about the Sutras and writing and where I’m at now with my new work. The first sutra from the first book on Concentration, is as follows:
NOW begins the teaching of yoga.
I know. I know. What is all this talk about yoga and what does it have to do with writing?
For me everything.
I don’t know where true writing comes from. I know it comes out from inside of me. Others writer have told me the same thing. There are times when they look at what they have written and either don’t remember writing it or can’t figure out where it came from.
I don’t believe it comes from a physical place. Creativity is something intangible. I believe it is innate to human beings – just look at any child (before school gets a hold of them and forces them to color within the lines), yet it cannot be touched or held, or examined under a microscope. It’s effects can be – a great novel or a painting or a beautiful song can be read, seen, or heard.
Yoga is about the yoking or bringing together of the individual and the cosmic. It is the journey inward to still the fluctuations of the mind, to rest in the self.
Writing brings me to such a place. It is an inward journey to the creative spark. It is a place that is hard to find as an adult, totally accessible as a child, and each time found just a little easier to return to the next time.
The first sutra says NOW begins the teaching of yoga. It has been, to me, a call to arms – only in this case no swords are necessary. The tools are the physical implements of writing (pencil, pen, paper, computer screen and keyboard), stillness, and a well-trained mind. Writing is all about training the mind to make this inward journey. It’s the same path the yogi takes.
NOW begins the teaching of yoga. Not after the dog has been taken out. Not after Facebook has been read. Not after tweets have been tweeted. Not after blog posts have posted.
And here’s the cool thing. You can learn about yoga and the inward journey from classes but if you really want to learn you have to make the inward journey yourself. Again and again and again. To get the most out of your practice you need to do it every day, even if it’s only for a short time. You journey by yourself and you learn from your experience. That’s why it’s called a yoga practice. No one said the path to even momentary enlightenment would be easy.
Now it’s time for writing practice.
The week between christmas and new years day is a strange and timeless week.It sits between the past year and the coming year. It sits in the present more than any other time, for me. In yoga class I say, try not to think about what happened before class or what will happen after. Just be present for the sensations in your body, the sound and rhythm of your breath, and awareness of your thoughts. Make room for the inward journey of your practice.
This week, after the insanity of christmas is over, these things – the ability to be more present in particular – just seem to be more… accessible. There is room inside of me.
It hasn’t always been this way. In many past years I couldn’t wait until January 1 and the beginning of a new year. I’d been focused on the end of the year and endings. And endings can be painful to be present with for any period of time.
This year, I’m more… present, more present tense.
I’m off so we’re all home, hibernating. For us hibernating is reading a lot, playing games (both electronic and non-electronic), going to the movies, taking out the dogs, and eating. I’ve added in writing in the morning and practicing yoga. I feel more whole than I have in a while. The writing is doing that for me. Other things too, but that is a big part.
I know. It sounds exciting. I wish I had two weeks like this.
But I only have one, for now.
Then it’s back to my day job.
It’s cold outside and warm inside.
Here’s three words from this morning’s work.
Besotted. Mummies. Aye.
Question number 3.
How do you deal with presentation anxiety? And how did you get over your fear?
Okay. Here’s one I actually have some expertise on. I know a lot about anxiety. You could say I’m an expert on it. I’ve lived with an anxiety disorder most of my life and in spite of this have performed as a reader, an actor, and a teacher in front of thousands of individuals over the last twenty years – and I’ve taught public speaking classes to just almost as many individuals.
The woman who asked this question had taken speech class and still had tremendous anxiety when she presented in class. I told her, “Welcome to the club.” The old stat from The Book of Lists is that people are more afraid of public speaking than death, taxes, divorce, and marriage. So If you’re scared of it you’re in the right spot.
So, to the first part of the question. Am I over my fear of public speaking? Yes and no. I still have some but I’d frame it as anxiety. Some days it’s higher and some days it’s lower but I am almost always anxious before events, the bigger the event the more anxious I am. But it’s normal anxiety – what you are supposed to have in situations like this – not overwhelming. And… the anxiety is much more manageable and that is why I can function and succeed with it. And yes, I even enjoy it (the public speaking not the anxiety – though we are friendly and exchange birthday cards).
What I did was do a lot of public speaking.
I practiced and practiced in my jobs. I liked teaching so I taught in all the different jobs I had. I watched other speakers and took techniques I liked, tried to avoid ones that I thought didn’t work.
I also took improvisational acting classes and found these to be tremendously helpful in building my confidence in my ability to deal with brain freeze (when you can’t think of what to say and stand there with your mind blank like you just drank a 7/11 slurpee way too fast) and in realizing there are many ways to get from point A to point B (ie: I don’t have to be perfect in what I say – I just have to get my point across). I will also say that taking acting classes and specifically improv classes helped me as a writer to see how ideas can be generated and grown very quickly with a minimum of effort. It also helped me to learn about character archetypes and how a 3-act narrative structure works.
I also swear by yogic breathing practices (pranayama), meditation, and asana (physical practice). I’ve practiced daily for the last five years and have been studying actively for fifteen. It has been the single most powerful collection of tools I’ve found to help me deal with life in general and anxiety in the specific.
Books to look at on public speaking:
The Exceptional Presenter (the best accessible, practical, and hands on resource I’ve found so far)
Public Speaking for Dummies (hey, don’t laugh, it’s a good resource!)