A Book Without a Story

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I’ve found that writing a book about an incredibly long hike often mirrors the metaphors of hiking the darn thing itself. Look back too often at where you came from, and you get wrapped up in premature editing. But an occasional healthy glance at where you started reminds you of your progress.

Last fall, I trudged through 85 pages of what essentially became free writing. It’s not all unusable but I did find that I ended up with a whole lot of boring writing that didn’t come from an honest place. Now, with new structure, I’m trying to hike my way through the pages themselves—starting with St. Jean Pied du Port and straight on to Santiago. I’m not allowing myself to veer off to discuss childhood memories or side stories no matter how tempting it may be. I will write what happened, as much as I can remember, and that will be that. Then, after reaching the end, I’ll weave in the stories that make the book about me, about why I went. That should work, right?

So far, not so much. I’m on page 14 of single-spaced writing and I’m only about 2 hours into my first day of hiking. Unlike a day at the office or even a day on vacation, time slows to a snail’s pace when hiking. So much happens over a period of 24 hours. And without a clear story of WHY I’m writing about all this yet, how do I know what to include and what to skip over? 14 pages on one day is too much to do to a reader. Continue reading

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Finding Organic Structure

Two fellow writer friends recently inquired about how my book was going. It’s a legit question—eight months ago I flaunted online that I’d written 85 pages of said manuscript before going totally silent about it. Since then, I’ve barely been able to look at it. It actually took writing 85 pages about my Caminos and everything that came before and in between to realize that I had no idea how to write a book. My lack of formal writing training has finally caught up with me.

No, I’m not waiting for some golden strike of lightning to show me the way to write this thing, or even for the possibly never-to-be-seen opportunity to go back to school. I simply don’t know what the story of my book is. What do I have? Two, five-week hikes across a country, a childhood filled with stories that would raise the hairs on the back of your neck, a year of trauma therapy, and all the details in between. Believe it or not, this does not make a story. It makes a very long journal entry. Lucky for me, I no longer have shame in sharing these stories. I do feel that I own them–I am ready to be my own narrator. So, that’s good.

But as I mentioned in my post on Tuesday—I have a pile of memories, stories, and lofty themes that could make endless books that I sure as hell wouldn’t want to read. Maybe someone would, but not me. I’m not putting down my experiences, I just haven’t found the proper way to honor these memories yet.

So how do you do that? The last chapter I read in Natalie Goldberg’s book dealt with finding organic writing structure. Instead of depending on the 5th grade essay structure—roman numerals and all—she suggests that a writer must find some way to structure their writing that works for them. For her, this came after decades of writing with little structure at all–as I’ve been doing quite unsuccessfully. When she did find something that worked for her, she was finally able to sift through that pile of thoughts living in her writer’s mind.

One of her journaling tactics—and eventually her writing structure—comes from jotting down phrases, sights, stories and anything that inspires her throughout her day into her journal. When she sits down to write something longer, she writes one or more of these at the top of her page and sees what comes out within these ideas. This allows your brain to ramble within a theme, it brings out the actual story you need to write—opposed to restricting yourself to the jail that is linear memoir writing.

I’ve done this bunch of times on this blog—my birthday month of stories, the acts of connection series, and even a list of Camino stories that fizzled out. But perhaps my structure has been too tightly held—too much pressure to create something interesting every day. I could, for example, move through the Camino towns as the inspiring word at the top of the journal page. I could try to tap into where my mind lived while walking through each of these little Medieval towns.

So yes, I have 85 sing-spaced pages of gobbledygook (did you know that’s actually a real word? And that I’ve been saying “gobbledyGOOP” my whole life?).  Anyway, what I wrote is not my Camino story. Perhaps it’s all the “this is what people will want to read” crap that I needed to write first.

I do feel a bit like I’m starting fresh, but this time, I’d like to at least be prepared. As I continue to write about not writing, I welcome any book, blog, or class suggestions for those also in this strange boat.

Perhaps one day I’ll look back on this post and say, “How nice! I had no idea I’d eventually write the darn thing.” Who can say.

For now, I’ll go back to sipping my cup of coffee in a bouncy plastic chair outside my favorite coffee shop where I currently sit. The guy next to me is mansplaining college courses to his–daughter? niece? friend?–even though she knows way more about the whole thing that he does. I’m dying to cut in to tell her that she doesn’t have to decide what to do with her life yet, and that no matter how much she plans and trains in one subject, she may still end up sitting in a coffee shop chair trying to recreate her artistic career at 31. But perhaps not.

Learning to Write Again

Yesterday, I spent my afternoon painting two old adirondack chairs that we found on a curb in Cape May while on vacation. Frustrated with my writing, I hauled my grouchy self to Home Depot with a hoard of feisty gardeners and purchased outdoor furniture paint, some gorilla glue, and a whole bunch of sandpaper. For someone who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing, the chairs don’t look half bad. I’m writing from one right now, rickety, gorilla-glued armrest and all.

My paid writing life seems to alternate between weeks packed with work and those with ample time to work on my non-paid, personal writing. I am currently having a slow week–hence the chair painting. I also made a cake and some really fancy-pants iced tea. Have I written anything I’m proud of this week? Negative. But look at that Santiago cake!

The one productive action I made toward my writing this week was to pick up one of Natalie Goldberg’s books I have yet to read, Thunder and Lightning. She begins the instructional collection with a harsh warning and a bit of regret. Her most well-known book, Writing Down the Bones, was one of her earlier publications, and now she wonders if she naively damaged those that she encouraged toward a writer’s lonely life. With the start of this book, she cautions her reader. “Know that you will eventually have to leave everything behind, the writing will demand it of you. Bareboned, you are on the path with no markers, only the skulls of those who never made it back. But I have made the journey and I have made it back–over and over again, I will act as your guide.”

Though her earliest book continues to provide guideposts for my writing, I can’t blame her for my questionable life choice. I’ve had a nagging narrative playing in my head since I was a kid. I even remember–during a particularly tense ride home in my parent’s car–planning to open my future book by describing the lightning storm that grew in the distance above the soccer field across the street from our house. If only I knew how to write anything past that.

It wasn’t until my first hike on the Camino did my writer’s voice have enough time and space to speak up and be heard. I’d hoped this second Camino–the one I completed last summer–would spark something new in me. Instead, as I whined to my husband last night, I’m left with a jumble of thoughts, piled in the middle of a room like a haystack, and I have no idea how to sort through it. Perhaps the older you get, the more discipline one needs to figure out what the hell you really want to say.

Anyway, I’m writing this post about not knowing how to write–one of many on this blog–to simply break my writing dry spell. When I was a kid, theatre was my true love. It was communal, celebratory, full of parties and rituals. Now, I am the only director, cast, and stage manager of anything I want to create–a true blessing and a curse. I no longer have to wait to be cast in something. It is my responsibility to put down the paintbrush, ignore the cake recipe, and simply write–even if it’s garbage.

But at least I picked up a helpful book today. And at least I received confirmation from a wise teacher about the ache that plagues each writer. “Now that you have been warned, let me also say this: if you want to know what you’re made of, if you want to stand on death’s dark face and leave behind the weary yellow coat of yourself, then just now–I hear it–the heavy modern doors of the cloister of no return are cracking open. Please enter.”

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The Darker Side to My Arts Addiction

I started acting in this ridiculous field when I was a kid. Next year is my 25th anniversary of jumping off into the deep end. My parents–both veterans of the theatre world in different respects–warned me from the get-go not to fall into some of the common traps of growing up in theatre. They’d seen it all–the egomaniacs, the obsessives, the bad-mouthers, the creepy men. I lived in fear of becoming one of these spoilsports among an otherwise-supportive and wonderful community. But my parents were always–and remain–very supportive of my choice to follow this crazy business. In a nutshell, my mom often came back to quoting Stanislavski at me: “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cure to what seems to be a much larger problem in this oversaturated field today–not so much the over-confidence, but the opposite–the constant feeling that you’re banging your head against a door that won’t open. The complete disconnect between effort and results. The fruitless pep talks after your 3rd audition of the week that leads to nothing but silence. I see less and less puffing of the ego feathers in audition spaces and more exhaustion, self-deprecation, and encouragement of unhealthy habits.

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AOC Challenge Week 6 & 7: Break Time

Photo via Unsplash

Hi All! I’ve hit a wonderfully busy time of my year, and for my own sanity, have decided to give myself a blogging pass for a bit until things settle down. In the meantime, last week’s On Being episode speaks to a lot of what I’ve been contemplating here. If you need a nice lift this morning, have a listen to this episode.

https://onbeing.org/programs/brene-brown-strong-back-soft-front-wild-heart-feb2018/

One of my favorite clips from the interview transcript, referring to a distancing that has occured since the election…

MS. BROWN: Yeah, no, we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And what’s so crazy is how that social demographic changing — of sorting into those ideological bunkers — tracks exactly with increasing rates of loneliness. And so I would argue that — and this goes back to your paradox — nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. And having shared hatred of the same people or the same — I call it “common enemy intimacy” —

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. That’s such a good phrase.

MS. BROWN: Our connection is just an intimacy created by hating the same people, is absolutely not sustainable. It’s counterfeit connection.

MS. TIPPETT: So it’s not true belonging.

MS. BROWN: Oh, God, it’s not true belonging, it’s hustling of the worst magnitude. It’s just hustling. And so my question was, for the men and women who really carried this sense of true belonging in their hearts — they didn’t negotiate it with the world; they carried it internally; they brought belonging wherever they went because of their strength and their spiritual practice around it — what did they have in common? And so this first practice of true belonging is, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” When you are really struggling with someone, and it’s someone you’re supposed to hate because of ideology or belief, move in. Get curious. Get closer. Ask questions. Try to connect. Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection: How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?

MS. TIPPETT: Actually, I think, the real spiritual practice — or at least hand in hand with that — the spiritual practice you’re pointing at is reclaiming our belonging, our human belonging, and having a courage to stand alone in our own groups, to transcend the tribal politics. Is that fair?

MS. BROWN: Yes. That’s exactly right.

MS. TIPPETT: So that we defy the sorting. We just say, “We’re not gonna live this way.”

MS. BROWN: I’ve probably been in front of — let me think — realistically, 25,000 people since this book came out, on a book tour across the United States. And every time, I ask the audiences, “Raise your hand if you deeply love someone whose vote in 2016 you find incomprehensible.” And 99% of hands go up. And we have to find a way. Then I ask, “How many of you are willing to sever permanently your relationship with the person you love, because of their vote?” And maybe one or two hands goes up.

I’m not; I am personally not willing to do that. Now I’m not going to tolerate abuse, or I’m not going to tolerate dehumanizing language. I’m not going to have a curious and open dialogue with someone whose politics insists on diminishing my humanity. Those are lines that were very clear with the research participants. But short of that, I’m going to lean in, and I’m going to stay curious.

AOC Challenge Week 5: Soup Kitchen Time!

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I hoped to further develop after hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here

I’m a tad behind here, so get ready for a two-post week!

On the first night of my Camino in 2017, in a massive old Cathedral-turned-pilgrim hostel, Christina and I poked through a table of hiking gear left by previous pilgrims. After that terrible trek over the Pyrenees, you’re usually willing to give up that “just in case” sleeping pad or $200 extra pair of shoes. Anything to make your pack lighter. For so many of us, those tables were god-sends. When my hiking socks left me with a new blister every day, I found a new pair of unused socks that rescued my poor, desperate feet.

At the end of most days, a family or local restaurant pooled their resources and cooked a low-cost or donation-based dinner for all us carb-starved pilgrims. The generosity never failed to bring half the table to tears. Maybe we’re just an emotional bunch. When the volunteer chef entered the dining room with that giant pan of paella, you better believe the whole room cheered.

Last week, when I found myself in a particularly low mood, I took another shift at our local soup kitchen in Montclair. I started volunteering there after the election. Full of rage and desperation for hope, I realized I couldn’t sit around anymore feeling hopeless about humanity.

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AOC Challenge Week 4: The Women’s March

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I hoped to further develop after hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here

Christina looking fierce. Photo used with permission.

Toward the end of election night, when things really started to go south, Ben and I took a walk. We were in the next town over, watching the returns with a group of close friends. We headed into a nearby park, lit up by glowing, old-fashioned oil lamps–something the village of this town is known for. It was beautiful outside. Misty, but unseasonably warm. It’s always interesting how the weather refuses to reflect the state of the world.

At one point, we stopped walking, a mutual agreement without words. “I feel like the earth is in mourning.” I’ve never felt such piercing sadness–for the fate of the earth’s health, for anyone outside of the 1%, for all my friends (and those I didn’t know) that belong to any minority soon to be targeted by this administration. I mourned for those who had given into their fear, sadness and loneliness, who had been duped by this administration. I mourned for the years of healing it would take to recconect, long after this is all behind us.

This mutual pain eventually turned into loneliness. Apparently, we were outnumbered by those willing to put other’s needs before our own. At least that’s how it felt.

Eight months later, I’d find myself in a room full of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, singing with a group of nuns in the middle of nowhere. They asked the room, “Why did you decide to walk to the Camino?” People answered the question in all languages, from all over the world, from different backgrounds and religions.

When my turn came, I surprised myself by saying, “I needed to believe in humanity again.” The room nodded in understanding. Since I’ve returned home, I’ve continued to this search. The “real world” is often alienating, especially compared to a five-week hike built around unwavering generosity and community.

For this week’s challenge, I decided to reach out to my circles online, requesting stories from an event that I did not experience first hand. I hope to invite more guest writers throughout this upcoming year.

Though we have a long way to go, movements like The Women’s March have energized otherwise silent or disconnected individuals into a mutual movement. In fundraising, one of the hardest challenges is getting someone to donate for the very first time–the same goes with activism. Sure, these marches are just the beginning and there’s more to be done, but for many people, the marches provided a day of identity, a reminder that we can connect in world that avoids eye contact.

Some people have been asking why we march. I am not here to explain that lengthy list right now, but you can read it here. For my writing project purposes, I must celebrate this homegrown Camino energy that has come from people reconnecting through the care and service of others.

Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to massage me with both positive and not-so-positive takes on your experience. Your courage inspires me to keep moving. It heals the hurt and anger from those horrible months. And as I hoped for in my hike, it helps me continue in my journey to believe in humanity again.

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AOC Challenge Week 3: Let’s Talk About Breweries

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I thought about while hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here

Quick note before I start: This week’s challenge was supposed to be about attending the NYC Women’s March. Due to an audition and an unmovable doctor’s appointment, it was not in the cards for me this year. BUT! I would love to put together a blog post mid-next-week about your experience at any of the Marches, this year’s or last. Please feel free to send me (through here or through Facebook) a short paragraph about how marching may have strengthened your feeling of connection and unity with the world and community around you. I will put them together in a post around Thursday!  Thanks in advance!

But without further ado:

Week 3: BONDING OVER BEERS!

Except for that dark year when doctors believed I was allergic to gluten, Ben and I have always been beer people. At least we thought we could be considered beer people at the time. Micro breweries had yet to enter our lives. As we move further and further away from the age where it’s acceptable to blow way too much money sitting at a bar and stumbling home at 2am, we started searching for something to fill that social gap. Sometimes you just can’t sit inside and play with your cats or watch another rerun of The Good Place again.

From 2000 to 2016, craft breweries in America shot up 165%. In New Jersey, this jump reached 203% in just four years due to legislation that increased licenses to microbreweries and loosened serving and distribution laws. Now you can drink at a small brewery after doing a tour of the facilities–which is usually done with a beer in hand.

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AOC Challenge Week 2: Coffee and People Watching!

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I thought about while hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here. In a nutshell, the past year’s terrifying political climate has distanced me even more from my community, and I’m seeking 52 ways to reconnect with other humans and cultures. I hope it will be a helpful–albeit, wacky–guide for those feeling the same way now or in the future.

My weekly challenge hit an early-in-the-year snag because my “Camino knee” has started acting up again. Apparently whacking my leg against a kickboxing bag isn’t great for a messed-up knee joint. So alas, my plan to try Kundalini Yoga for this project must wait a few weeks.

And so, this suddenly left me without an Act of Conneciton for week two. Enter my favorite freelancing coffee shop–something I’ve very quickly learned to take for granted after only 4 months of freelancing. When I worked in an office–even though it was incredibly social and friendly–I found myself hitting a wall of loneliness by 11am. By nature, I need to move around, see the outdoors, and balance my alone time with seeing other human beings in order to stay sane.

Well, freelancing at home–as much as everyone drools over the potential of doing so–can be just as lonely. I find myself explaining my schedule to my cat, turning on podcasts to here another human beings’ voice, or hoping that the mailman will FINALLY wave back when he drops off our mail at 11. He’s got stuff to do, I get it. But I will befriend him if it’s the last thing I do.

Anyway, as I sit here in Montclair’s cozy, wood and burlap-filled coffee shop, desperately trying to find an activity to take the place of my yoga, I noticed something. It’s Thursday afternoon and this place is packed. In an office, I thought the world slowed to a halt during the week, that everyone else was wandering around with babies at this hour, that it would be quiet and tedious. And yet, as I sit here, I am watching a four-person knitting club, about 12 similar freelancers typing away like me, an arts society meeting (I eavesdrop), and the occasional adorable local toddler with her babysitter coming in for a cookie.

The man in the knitting group just finished the top of an ENTIRE sweater and put the darn thing on as he finished. That’s insane to me. I can’t finish half a scarf without it turning into an abstract dish rag. The arts society is a diverse group of feisty locals talking about benefitting a local nonprofit with their next event.  The pair sitting to the left of me has been talking about starting a fashion consulting business and the barista is talking about his trip to Spain. All of this buzz is topped off by lively Michael Jackson music.

If we’re really lucky, this adorable two-year-old comes in with her sitter, and let me tell you, she is the star of the neighborhood. Since they come in around the same time every day, she knows the baristas and half the usual writers sitting here sipping their third coffee. High-fiving a toddler wearing a unicorn hat is a welcomed break to editing marketing copy.

So why does this matter? And why would all these random people in one make-shift office mean so much to me? Because for at least five years, all I’ve dreamed of doing is joining their ranks. It never fails in helping me beat the midday blues. A packed Thursday morning coffee shop is a reminder that things are happening, even when I feel like the world has stopped within my own small bubble. People are meeting, creating things, starting new ideas. And I’m allowed to be among them. This energy is infectious. You don’t have to talk to your cat or feel like the world is disappearing when you sit among this energy.

But experiencing this simple phenomena has nothing to do with freelancing. The first time I ditched life for a coffee shop was during my semester abroad in London. I was incredibly overloaded, getting sick, and was simply burning out. So I took off on a Monday and wandered through the streets of London. I was a stranger, unseen, weaving around the bustling business folk. I had no plan, no destination, just the chance to blend and become invisible a crowd of Monday people.

I eventually ended up in a cafe with a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee, journaling about all the crap I needed to get out of my head. The weekday coffee shop saved me. And it has continued to save me.

So I will put this on my list: when feeling disconnected, pick a local, small-business coffee shop and come soak in the energy of the place in the middle of the week. If you can, take one day off, or just take a longer lunch.

It didn’t occur to me until recently that non-writers may not spend as much time soaking in this world as I do. People-watch, write and ramble in a journal, doodle, read a book. Just soak in the energy of a community. It’s an ambivert’s dream! You get the energy of being social without having to talk to anyone!

Until next week, thanks for reading, all.

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AOC Challenge Week 1: I Punched Some Things!

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I thought about while hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here. In a nutshell, the past year’s terrifying political climate has distanced me even more from my community, and I’m seeking 52 ways to reconnect with other humans and cultures. I hope it will be a helpful–albeit, wacky–guide for those feeling the same way now or in the future.

Week One: CKO Kickboxing class in Lyndhurst, NJ

“So what happens if you can’t keep up and need a break?” I asked Ben, panicked, “do you just lie down on the ground?”

“Like in the fetal position?!” he asked.

“That’s what you do in yoga class!”

I wish this was me, I dig her tattoos. But alas, it is an awesome stock photo by Matheus Ferroro.

It feels odd starting this challenge with a kickboxing class. But connection comes from unexpected experiences, and I’m a little tired of the traditional advice for feeling less alienated in today’s society. So I figured, let’s start out with a bang. Or a punch. Oh boy.

My husband Ben has been kickboxing for years. Though I took one trial class with him years ago, I never got the courage to get myself back in there. These classes are no joke. They put my hiking strength to shame. But they also supply something I didn’t even know I needed until it was available to me–the opportunity to safely hit something with all my might.

It’s important to note that I am not a violent person. I carry fruit flies outside in cups (they only get a month to live!). I’m still thinking about a spider I killed because it came at me in the shower a month ago. And yet, an hour of slamming my body into a heavy bag of sand made me realize how much I’d been missing out on. If anything, it will keep me–and probably many others–from ever getting angry enough to be violent in the first place. It also, much to my surprise, became a plausible act of connection perfect for this project.

Expectations vs. Reality

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