I'm on a bus rolling through Massachusetts, heading back from my weekend at Kripalu with Dani Shapiro.
Kripalu is a center for yoga and health in Lenox, Massachusetts. Leigh Ann went on a retreat there years ago and had encouraged me to check it out, since it's an easy four-hour bus ride from the city.
In early January, she sent me this friendly nudge:
Our stories are symphonies of memory and nuance that reverberate throughout our beings, from the small, tender moments that shaped us to the monumental experiences that forever altered the course of our lives. Our stories inhabit our bodies and minds, and they are waiting to be told—beautifully, authentically, and courageously. Join best-selling author Dani Shapiro for a heart-opening weekend of meditation and movement, writing exercises, group sharing, and discussion that will stay with you long after you return home.
Part of me feels glad I went and knows I needed what I experienced.
Yet part of me also feels frustrated and disappointed with myself. Why aren't the pages pouring out? Why does this process feel so hard? Why can't I seem to stick to a routine and find my rhythm with this project?
If my goal is to write this memoir, might I have been better off just locking myself in my studio for four days and turning off my internet access? (Since, as Dani said one of her friends has noted: "Writing on a computer is like writing in the middle of an amusement park.")
Ultimately, I think I did need what I got out of it -- affirmation from a master in the craft that writing is like chiseling a rough boulder into a fine sculpture. I suppose we all want it to be more like pouring champagne into a glass -- you chill the bottle, you pop the cork, and voila! Maybe there is a bit of mess if you pour too much, but nothing you can't easily wipe up.
But nope -- it's a boulder. Heavy, in need of the right tools. And right there in the middle of your path. You'll require fine, delicate brushes and blades when you are further along, but in the beginning, it's all rough edges and big chisels as you try to see what shape is lurking inside. Finding the outline, shaving off big chunks that don't belong, blasting through outer layers and scratching at what lies within.
She has some really lovely passages about this in her book on the craft, STILL WRITING.
"Are we there yet?" is, she noted, always part of the ride. We are impatient children ready to get where we're going already. As are all of our friends and family, who've tired of hearing about what has started to seem like an interminable project.
(Side note: I love the way Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, explained her career path in a Glamour magazine article a few years ago. She wrote a book about genocide, A PROBLEM FROM HELL. And, yet:
My mother, though, describes the title of the book as my relationship to writing it. After six years, she jokes the book was her problem from hell. My problem from hell.
But hey, she did finish her book...and it was eventually read by a young senator named Barack Obama. Boom!)
Just like the poem Ithaka reminds us, the best part of any journey is not the destination -- it's the journey itself. I need to remember that. I'm grateful that something does continue to call me down this road, telling me that this is a hill worth climbing, whispering in my ear that I have a story I'm meant to share.
I had a cool experience in a yoga dance class between writing sessions on Saturday. It was one of those truly New Age whackadoodle let-it-all-hang-out, crawling on the floor like animals, dancing wildly to the beat of drums sort of hippie things you'd expect at a place like Kripalu. It was an awesome reminder of what can happen when we stop worrying what anyone else says or thinks, and we just let ourselves listen to our bodies and follow the rhythm in our soul.
It was a physical reminder of the need to approach writing with that sort of openness and flexibility, to let the story take shape on the page, rather than coming in with a bunch of preconceived notions about what you're "supposed" to be writing.
You might think, Dani said, that the most fulfilling part of writing will be holding your finished product. "The best part is being inside of it," she said. "Catching the mind and seeing what's there. Writing is how we find out things we didn't know we knew. If you know what happened, why are you writing it?"
Here are a few other nuggets I wrote down:
"Every writer I know gets in her own way and devises ways to get out of her own way."
From THE MEMORY PALACE by Mira Bartok:
"Our recollections change in the retelling."
"Memory if it is anything at all is unreliable."
What she found out when she wrote DEVOTION:
"When we are true to our own humanity, our own uniqueness, our own specificity, we discover that we are not so different."
You can't find the shape without being in the mess -- being in the chaos. That's why meditation helps. You need to quiet your noisy mind.
She has a friend who starts a novel by writing seven longhand pages a day. You have to unleash the mess and see what's salvageable. Throughout the weekend, I made myself write in longhand, and it was a pleasant surprise what came out.
She defined memoir versus autobiography:
Memoir is a story that is shaped out of the chaos of a life.
Autobiography: "you know who I am, and you want to know about my life."
A big part of the weekend was leading us through several "metta" (loving kindness) meditations.
-- May you be safe.
-- May you be happy.
-- May you be strong.
-- May you live with ease.
Memoir freezes a moment in time. That moment remembered from that place becomes a solid object. The idea there is ever an end point is a fallacy. Whatever you write is unique to the point in time in which it was written. Memory is constantly shifting and adapting. (I would love to discuss this with anyone who reads SLOW MOTION.)
One can get extremely derailed by sharing a draft with the wrong person at the wrong time. Not everyone knows how to give constructive feedback. DO NOT share your work with someone who is jealous of or competitive with you, or someone who will try to get you to turn your work into what they'd like to do.
-- To concern yourself with it when you are writing a first draft is to ensure you will not write as deeply and freely as you must.
-- Your manuscript is not going to fly from your desk to the bookstore.
-- "Write as if everyone you know has left the planet."
-- Don't take pot shots. Don't try to make yourself look clever at someone else's expense. Her one regret about SLOW MOTION, her first memoir, is a mean, hurtful comment about her aunt.
-- You will be surprised what people take issue with in your writing; it won't necessarily be the things you expected to hit a nerve. "We can't know in a whole host of ways what is going to hurt other people and what is not going to hurt other people."
-- If you're writing out of vengeance, put it down. How do you know? You're thinking, "I can't wait until she reads this."
-- Told a story about Honor Moore, whose memoir THE BISHOP'S DAUGHTER infuriated her siblings. "We don't choose what we write," Moore said. "It chooses us. And if we turn our back on it, we are somehow diminished."
As I prepared to head back today, I took my camera on my walk and tried to capture a bit of the beauty of the place.
It felt futile -- a bit like my writing felt all weekend. Yet instead of feeling frustrated, I felt grateful for the parallel and the metaphor. Sometimes you simply fail to capture what you're trying to capture. But that doesn't mean you give up. It means you find a new angle, a new lens, a different approach. And you just keep trying.