Om Namah Shivaya: Creation Through Destruction

This afternoon, Bill at The Bookcast was asking me about All That Is Necessary, and I had to point out that I’d written the first draft of the book set entirely in 1991. It didn’t work like that. (Kyrie had to force her way through it.) So I ended up scrapping large portions of the draft to create an entirely new story, one set mostly present-day, with less than a dozen 1991 interludes.

The story is stronger and more compelling for it.

Often, that’s what we need to do with our writing and our life. We have to tear down what exists, even if it’s perfectly serviceable, to make room for something new to blossom. Kyrie and I were talking about that some over the weekend, as she prepares to go back to school more than 20 years after graduating from college. Beyond that, she could be relocating just a couple of years after she finally moved “home.” It’s scary, but the degree will open doors for her dream that she can’t attain any other way. She just has to tear down a lot of her existing life to do it.

Sometimes, these changes are our choice. We consciously decide to make a change, to take that leap of faith. Other times, circumstances decide for us. I did my yoga teacher training at a time when I wasn’t sure newspapers and journalism jobs would be around in a year or two. I needed a Plan B. That process opened my heart and mind. It’s where I first encountered the Om Namah Shivaya mantra.

Shiva is the Destroyer in Indian mythology. I was fortunate enough to see a number of historical depictions of Shiva on Saturday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a small special exhibit. Shiva is always depicted covered in ash, a metaphor, I suppose, for the destruction that accompanies his role in our lives. And yet, the translation of Om Namah Shivaya is quite different. This call to Shiva translates many ways, but my favorite is “We celebrate the dance of energy that is creation.”

We call to the Destroyer to celebrate creation. We do so because often the only way we can make space to create something new is to destroy what’s there. In 2009, that philosophy helped me come to terms with the possible destruction of newsrooms and journalism. I came to accept, even embrace, that if I was laid off, it was just the opportunity to open the door to a new path, whatever that would be.

I kept my job, and I’m still there, still enjoying it. But my decisions during those uncertain months took me down paths of self-discovery through yoga and brought me back to writing fiction, something I’d abandoned a few years earlier. It wasn’t the last time I would rely on Om Namah Shivaya as a guiding principle. Even today I think about life’s possibilities and recognize that to open myself to something new, I might have to give up a place where I’m comfortable. Moving out of our comfort zones and balancing on the edge is both terrifying and liberating — sometimes even at the same time. By nature, we often play it safe and err on the side of inertia. We’re not willing to destroy to make space for a new creation. But when we take that leap of faith, when we step out into the abyss without knowing where our next footstep will land, we make room for the next stage in our lives to blossom and grow.

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Writer Yoga: See the World Through The Right Lens

In my first yoga teacher training that really touched on the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, one of the other trainees mentioned advice her stepfather, who had terminal cancer, had once given her.

Four versions of the same photo using different filtering effects“We see the world through the lenses we CHOOSE to wear.”

A simple statement, but one that has stuck with me ever since. It’s a great reminder about how our past history and experiences can color our outlook on life. In these days of political polarization, we see it all the time. People hold one opinion and use that to define everything else they see.

It’s the difference between the perception that a person is shy vs. standoffish, or that somebody is mean vs. stressed, having a bad day vs. out to get you. It explains how you can say one thing to me and I can hear something totally different. And it’s key to defining characters.

If you haven’t read Thrown Out, there might be a spoiler or two here, but it’s the best writing example I have. Dan and Chris Continue reading

Wobbling Through Uncertainty

A few weeks ago, I sprained my foot after I tripped over my own two feet. It’s finally starting to feel close to normal, at least some of the time. The past several days have been unsettling as I’ve had to adjust to limited mobility and unstable balance. It’s pushed my yoga practice off the mat, and even that’s been limited.

At first, I thought this would be a good excuse to put in some serious writing time. No classes at the gym, and going anywhere except work was more trouble than it was worth for the better part of the week. No dice. I did watch a lot of TV, listen to a lot of music and start a new crochet project for my future niece or nephew. But only this weekend did I really start to focus in on writing.

Part of this is because the instability in my gait was paired with some uncertainty about my future. The day I sprained my foot was also key in that situation. I’ve spent about three months teetering on the edge of two paths, waiting to find out which is the way forward. The past few days, I’ve come to the conclusion that the path that branches off my current one likely isn’t available right now. During that same period, my foot has improved considerably. Karma has a wicked sense of humor.

As writers, we face uncertainty all the time. Are people going to like what I’m writing? Is my critique group going to eviscerate this piece I’ve been revising all month? Where is the publishing industry going to be next week or next year? Is there even going to be a publishing industry next year?

When we’re not sure where to step, we often don’t step anywhere. We let inaction become our response. That experimental piece we’ve been working on sits in a folder because we aren’t sure if we should submit it or not. The novel revisions get pushed off because we’re not sure we’re able to write well enough to give the book what it needs. Our daily writing practice is pushed lower and lower on our to-do list.

We let our fears that we’ll make the wrong choice stop us from making any choices.

 

 

Writer Yoga: Balance Keeps Our Writing Fresh

After class the other day, I was talking with a member about balance from one side of the body to another. That’s the other kind of balance we find in yoga. The poses — Tree, Star, Dancer, Airplane, Warrior III — allow us to develop that calm center that keeps us from getting knocked off balance by the ebb and flow of life. But there’s another sort of balance, the kind we should infuse our practice with — both yoga and writing.

When we practice yoga, we talk about staying balanced, doing to one side what we do to the other. But sometimes, we’re coming to practice unbalanced. One hip is tight, or  an arm is weaker than the other. We wobble all over the place on the right foot, but are rock-solid on the left. In those cases, we bring ourselves back to balance by giving extra attention to the side that needs it. When I practice on my own, I often stay in Pigeon up to twice as long on my right side. That set of external rotators is tighter, and it takes longer to get the muscles to relax and loosen to match the left side. In the big picture, practicing like this brings me to balance.

It’s the same way with writing. We all have our strengths. Some people are great at the intricacies of plot. Like chess masters, they can see all the players on the board and figure out how things will go three, six or 10 moves out. Others are fabulous at creating characters that seem like they’re going to jump off the page. Some writers create description so sublimely we can see exactly what they see. Some have dialogue that makes us feel like we’re eavesdropping on the characters. And then there are those whose action scenes get our hearts racing.

But for every strength, we have an area that doesn’t come as naturally. The plot that has giant holes. Characters that feel like paper dolls walking across the stage. Description ridden with cliches. Dialogue so stilted as to be painful to read. Action scenes that plod.

It’s tempting as writers to play to our strengths, just as it is in yoga. I’ll happily do Warrior II, Triangle or Pigeon all day. Cow-Faced Pose, Seated Forward Fold, Warrior I? Not so much. My body doesn’t like those poses as much, so I tend to avoid them. We do the same as writers. The action expert keeps things moving so nobody has time to spot the gaping hole in a character’s motivation. The plot whiz twists things up so much you don’t notice the descriptions use the same phrases over and over again. The dialogue expert uses that to camouflage how little is actually happening.

But just as the poses our bodies like least often are the ones they need the most, so, too, do we need to focus some attention on the areas of writing we stumble over. I’ll be the first to admit I have plotting issues. That means in any project, I need to spend more time working on that — and I need to use the places I am strong to help me with that.

Now, we’ll all always have our strengths. This isn’t a call to abandon what we do well to spend endless time working on the other elements. But the more competence we get in the areas we struggle, the more we can let the places we excel carry our story into new heights of brilliance.

 

What areas of writing are your strengths? Which ones need more attention? Do you give them that attention, or do you avoid it? 

Writer Yoga: Letting Go of Expectations

Some mornings, I come to my mat and everything clicks. My body feels fluid, moving pose to pose smoothly. Other mornings, it’s a struggle. I feel all the places my body deviates from the norm, all the ways I struggle to find the essence of the pose.

I have writing days like that, too. Some days I sit down and find myself typing away, the words spilling onto the page like water rushing over the rocks. Other days — too many of those days lately — I find myself struggling to find my place, procrastinating over this task or that one, anything to postpone my daily writing. And though I can predict which day I’ll have when I sit down most of the time, I’ve been surprised both ways before.

The past couple of weeks have been tough for me from a writing standpoint. I just switched schedules at work because of a staff shortage. After a few weeks of a patchwork solution that had me doing three early-bird shifts, three late-night shifts and one day off, my boss realized he needed something sustainable over a longer time period. So now I’m working night desk five days a week with two weekdays off. Instead of a 4 a.m. alarm, I find myself getting home from work about 11 p.m. and hoping to wind down enough to be in bed before 1 a.m. With gym classes on my two days off from the paper, and work on my three days off from the gym, I don’t have any days I’m truly off. And yet it still took me about 10 days to figure out why my writing production has been almost zilch. That happened a few days ago, and I’m still trying to stop beating myself up over it.

Whether it’s yoga, writing, parenting, work or just life in general, we tend to have expectations. Simple ones, like being able to do a certain thing at a certain time. And the more complicated ones that involve a million tiny steps over a longer period of time. There’s a fine line between setting a path in life and hamstringing what we do in expectations.

As a naturally Type-A person, setting goals and expectations is easy. We’re the ones who need to learn to let go, to allow life to happen and roll with the punches. Not everybody’s like that, and for some, the goals and expectations step is part of what we need to do to find a direction and a purpose. But whichever category we fall into, part of finding our way in life involves both setting a path and being open to detours along the way.

Today, do one thing without expectations for how it turns out. Just enjoy the experience. 

Writer Yoga: Walking Along the Edge

There’s a phrase I use a lot when I teach yoga — I let participants know we’re looking for the space between “easy” and “ouch.” You know that space. It’s not just in yoga. In anything we do, there’s a place where we’re challenging ourselves, but not setting ourselves up to fail. That’s the Edge, the line where we need to walk if we’re going to improve our skills at whatever we’re doing.

On the mat, it’s where we feel the muscles stretching and lengthening, gravity and our alignment assisting us into the pose. The easy is when we don’t feel the stretch; the ouch is when we go too far and all of a sudden we’re hobbling around for a day or two.

Off the mat, the easy is Continue reading

Softening Our Grip on Outcomes Through Nonattachment

Back when I had a yoga studio, I had a weekly yoga philosophy discussion group. It started as a short workshop at The Sacred Circle, a local bookstore that carries some wonderful yoga and meditation books, among other things. In the workshop, in the discussion group, in every yoga training I’ve taken that’s touched on this and in my own teaching, nonattachment has proven to be the toughest concept to grasp.

At its most basic, nonattachment means letting go of our grip on outcomes. That’s a tough concept for most of us to first understand and then to live. I got a hard practical lesson in it while going through yoga teacher training at the same time the newspaper industry seemed to be melting down through round after round of layoffs. That lesson was probably also the greatest gift I could have received because Continue reading