Pointing to the Moon: Look Beyond Candidates’ Words

lunaditoThere’s one thing nearly every person is aware of at this very moment: the world is shifting and changing, faster and greater than ever before. As people and as humanity we are in the process of accelerated evolution, which is a fancy way of saying we’re all on a freight train speeding over a hill and where the track goes beyond that is as yet unknown. In the US, our current contest for who can convince enough people to vote for them is the most poignant proof of the conflict that typically comes with change. It is shining an unflattering spotlight on our foibles and flaws as a country and society—most obviously the often alarming push-pull between our desire to connect and our fear of getting too close to people different from ourselves.

As I watch our political season play out in all its splendor, an image keeps popping into my head. The candidates are lined up on a stage, all standing behind a podium, their mouths open but no words are being spoken. I know it’s difficult to believe, but they’re actually silent for a minute; just go with it. Each person’s arm is raised towards the darkened sky and pointing to their own individual moon. It took me a minute to figure out why this image meant something, but I remembered something I learned about an ancient teacher, originally in the appendices of the beautiful novel A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. (Find out more about her and her writing here.) I’ll explain.

Is the truth in the words?

Political candidates are constantly talking. Then people talk and write about what they say. Then they say some more and the cycle endures. With each discussion, the original meaning and energy of those words are distorted a bit more, often to support the viewpoint of whomever is now speaking. A twisted messaging telephone game.

Words are powerful, particularly in politics. A few well-timed and expertly delivered speeches can win a black man with a Muslim middle name the presidency. Twice. (The best example can be found here.) As a writer, I am hyper-aware of their usefulness and magic. Words can inspire and motivate. They can broaden perspectives and open people to new ideas. They can create change.

But they also can manipulate. They can validate fear. They can light a fire beneath underlying resentment. Words can transform a crowd wishing to connect with people who share some of their beliefs and hope for the future into a mob incited to reject and eject, literally and sometimes forcefully, those they feel threaten these beliefs. (Watch one example here.)

They are powerful, but they aren’t everything.

Over the years, the details of politics have become less and less interesting to me. I have very smart, knowledgeable, passionate friends and family who believe that politics is won and lost in the minutiae. What does the letter of the law actually mean? What can we actually put on the ground as a result? That used to light my fire. Let’s break it down into bits and determine how we can actually create change using well-crafted policies, government funding and human-generated power, and how I can get my hands in there.

As I get older, politics has become more of a personal philosophical pursuit. The actual acting on my beliefs is still important. I just don’t want to spend hours debating them, dwelling on the words and defending their meaning, and I’m not sure effective solutions are found within government and political discourse as much as I used to.

Still, as much as I’d like politics to be something separate from my time here on Earth, it isn’t. Nothing is, really. How and whether I vote, what I say about it, what I believe about certain candidates, what I believe the role of society should be in supporting those in need or those with diminished rights, how I treat my fellow human beings as a result of my beliefs, how I believe our laws should or shouldn’t support that, how I believe equality and justice should play out. It’s all tied to who I am as a person. And I am, as we all are, a person who lives, writes, thinks, believes and behaves in the world based on where I am in my own personal evolution.

Political candidates are no different from all of us in this respect. Knowing, as best we can, what their true intentions are is more important to me than what they say they will do. Many of my friends and family might call me naïve, and some of them have. Nevertheless, unlike some popular candidates (see story, including video, here), I believe that if the convictions don’t shift, if the pre-programmed mindsets don’t alter, neither will the system. Hands follow the heart. That’s how true change occurs.

If a candidate’s heart is genuine and ego reasonably managed (as much as a politician’s can be), the “doing” will come from the right motivation. They will play the long game and things that can truly and positively impact our society will materialize from the resulting policies—perhaps not immediately, but inevitably.

Herein lies the rub… Before anything can happen, we have to talk about it.

The Sixth Patriarch of Zen (Read more about him here.), who was illiterate, said looking for truth in books (e.g., words) was like seeking truth in the finger pointing to the moon. The moon is the truth, and words can only point the way. Writing is a beautiful and powerful art, but it’s a terrible way to communicate if you’re trying to do so indisputably. Speaking charismatically is a wonderful skill, but the words you choose are only a sliver of the truth. And for some, it’s only a version of someone else’s truth they wish you to believe is theirs.

As much as I love language, it is inherently flawed. Shared stories and ideas are limited, a reflection of one person’s perspective. They will be received the same way, through a filter of the other person’s experiences, memories and beliefs.

Words lined up into powerful messaging statements or in the most pleasingly logical order so our brain can comprehend them only wrap us in a comforting blanket of reality that doesn’t exist. They make solid something that is of the air. Truth is just floating out there, waiting for us to see it. Words manifesting as phrases, anecdotes, doctrines, plans, policies, speeches, books and all the rest of what we believe we need to understand things, just get in the way of us seeing and knowing it.

So, we need to look beyond the words.

Here’s what the image reminded me to consider… The intention and energy behind what someone says and writes is more important than the language. And what you see reflected back to you is just as critical. We need to look closely at both, with clear eyes.

It is crucial to know if a candidate is speaking frankly because they don’t want to waste time getting to the core truth of the matter or pretending to speak frankly to build credibility with a crowd disillusioned after decades of political doublespeak.

It makes a difference whether this straightforward rhetoric contains substance, ideas, thoughtfulness and empathy, or simply uses words they know we will identify with—probably via focus groups, political operatives and crafty polling.

It is vital that there be something other than verbiage to support these ideas, such as past or present behavior, established or appropriately rejected relationships, a sense of the person behind the image (for the many of you who trust your intuition on such things).

It is paramount that the intentions behind the words and the actions to follow be positive and not only motivated by ego, fear or desire for power.

With every speech, debate, rally, interview and opinion piece, we need to understand that a candidate’s words are pointing to something, but the finger is only a finger. The moon is what we should be looking at, and which one we choose is up to us.

It is a reflection of us.

Who you trust and how you vote is up to you.

It is a reflection of you.

Make sure you aren’t following the finger that simply sounds the most familiar or rousing.

And make sure you can live with the person standing beneath it.

om

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Butterflies & Bridges

A friendship survives transformation
& discovers unconditional acceptance

two butterflies

 

When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she always had been. But she had wings.

—Dean Jackson

Transformation can be as small or as big as you are prepared to undergo. If you want it to, any manner can have a positive effect. A new hair color. Cutting back on meat. Five minutes of meditation every day. Smiling at your child and telling them you love them the next time they do that thing that drives you up a wall for the seventeenth time. If you sit differently, your dodgy hip will feel better after eight hours in front of the computer. No one else may notice a thing, except that you seem less cranky at happy hour.

When the changes become more obvious, when you begin to see and hear and function differently in the world, the first people to notice are those nearest and dearest to you. When you shift, you shift everything and everyone around you, so they’re bound to notice, even if unconsciously. These are the people who have invested time and energy into understanding this person they’ve known for years, even decades, and into building a relationship with them. The new you, the more authentic you, the you that speaks your truth, as happy and comfortable as you may be, can appear to be a stranger.

Those around you are suddenly faced with an unanticipated grief, an opportunity to mourn their loss, and a choice. Do I embrace the transformed person before me, or do I let them go?

Often they let you go.

I’ve lost more than a few friends over the years, even though I’ve never considered myself a controversial character. I was never the most popular or influential in any clique that would have me. I never stole anyone’s boyfriend or snitched on them to the boss. I’ve spent entire social occasions talking to only one person and sneaking out before anyone else noticed I was there. The only controversial thing about me is my Truth Teller. She is spirited and wily and sings like a bird when she sees that scar, that bright red button flashing at her ripe for pushing. She knows it’s waiting to be pushed. It needs to be pushed. It can be my own or someone else’s. It doesn’t matter. The Truth Teller arises, puts on her cape and boots and third eye tiara and has to push it. Well, I don’t have to, but I usually do.

When The Truth Teller speaks, sometimes people go away.

Even after the losses, I have a small but treasured, time-tested and forgiveness-ready group of confidantes scattered near and far. They are a diverse lot, and I don’t speak to some of them more frequently than once a year. But they are my extended tribe. I have walked through the fire with all of them. They have heard my true voice and been on the other end of the truth sword more than once. I brought one to tears over breakfast a few years ago. She eventually asked me not to blurt out stories from her tragic past lives any more. Despite many incidents like this, my tribe accepts and loves me, and I am grateful for their loyal friendship.

All of them know we are meant to witness each other’s transformations and see that our souls are happier, glowing, more comfortable in our skin. We recognize the natural blossoming of someone who’s been masked for years. When you’re meant to share this, you feel each other’s delight and reach out a relaxed but strong hand when the tectonic plates start to shift beneath our feet.

Those who were meant to be part of our past, but not part of our continuing evolution, painfully peel off and out of our lives. My hope always is that our paths will at some point meet again, but we all know this is usually not the case. If we are awake in our lives, and sometimes when we’re not, we are able to recognize when our relationships no longer nurture one or both participants. If we listen, the universe, our higher selves, our heart and anyone or anything else with a valued voice on the subject tells us when it’s time to let them go, or when it’s worth hanging on.

One dear friend—let’s call her Zoe—and I have known each other for thirty-five years. At the ages of seven and eight years old, we chased each other around the church parking lot during vacation bible school. Around the same time, we discovered we took piano lessons from the same little old lady in our neighborhood. Zoe was the musical savant of the group who never practiced, and I was an average pianist who thought I could get away with never practicing but was reminded every week about hard work being my path if I ever wanted to be great.

We drifted in and out of each others’ lives for years, but we didn’t become good friends until junior high school when, both knee-deep in adolescent hormones, we dated brothers. Her boyfriend was the older, blond, handsome high school senior who played trumpet and the lead in the school musical. She was beautiful but also funny, eccentric and intentionally individual before it was popular to be such things. She loved the offbeat icons of the time like John Waters and Prince and wore hot pink pants rolled up to her knees. The best singer in our performing arts school with the charisma to match, she was clearly ahead of her time and distinguishable from miles away.

When she started dating the older brother, survival of the fittest demanded that me and my beau get shoved into the seatbelt-less back seat of his pea green Chevy Nova on the way to the movies or peeling away from church on the Sunday nights we all played hooky from church youth group. Technically, Zoe was the outsider in the car. The brothers’ family and mine had been good friends for years, but seniority had been established, and Zoe did not want to be an outsider in her boyfriend’s car. Luckily, she was good enough to never throw it in my face that I clearly wasn’t any competition for the honor, and we became fast friends.

I was her Angela Chase and she was my Rayanne Graff.

Long after the brothers tapped out, our friendship remained. Our lives diverged but our evolutions always were something at least vaguely familiar to each other. We sent crazy postcards and wrote hysterical letters to each other throughout college as she pursued her singing career and I dreamily contemplated what kind of journalist I’d most like to be. We almost always ended our winter breaks by sharing a crockpot full of processed cheese dip on New Year’s Eve and kissing each other at midnight after we kissed whichever boy was in our lives that year.

During an impromptu post-college visit, I found her red-faced and waiting for a mental health hotline callback from a psychological counselor. He later diagnosed her with the chemical imbalance we’d suspected for years. Not long after, she gave up singing professionally for good. As she was trying to figure out what her new life would look like, mine also was suddenly stalled by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Still our friendship remained.

One Christmas, she showed up on my parents’ doorstep with a large, smiling man in tow.

“This is my fiancé,” she said. “Will you be my maid of honor?”

“Of course!” I said.

Four years later, I called her from New York. “Will you be my maid of honor?”

“Of course!” she said.

She was thrilled when Larry and I “finally” moved back to Ohio and, for the first time since high school, we lived in the same city.

“I’m having a baby,” she said.

“How exciting!” I said. Her beautiful, quirky daughter was born, and we both cried happy tears filled with joy and fear. Considering her history, we braced for the likelihood of postpartum and tried to laugh as she walked bravely through it and began to recognize all wasn’t well in her world.

“I’m moving away,” I said a year later.

“I know you’re unhappy here,” she said. “I’ll miss you. I understand.”

“We can stay in touch over email and the phone!” I said enthusiastically in response to her grimace.

“Sure,” she said.

At first, we sent detailed emails, and even caught each other online for an occasional live chat. She congratulated me on our adoption decisions and eagerly helped in a myriad of ways. She always asked lots of questions about our life in California, so foreign in many ways from what she knows as a life-long Ohioan.

Soon the questions came less frequently and it became clear that our often deviating but somehow recognizable paths were becoming too…divergent.

I could feel her energy leave me as I described some strange or beautiful aspect of our life–a day spent writing on the beach, a celebrity encounter at one of Larry’s work functions, weeks of nearby wildfires, eighty-degree weather in February, my massage therapy clients. I could tell she was trying to listen as a supportive friend, but often she didn’t respond to significant parts of my emails or found a quick reason to end our instant message chats when my opinion on something veered off her reservation, especially when it came to religion or spirituality.

A life-long devoted Lutheran, she and I have differed in our spiritual perspectives most of our lives. Both our childhoods were largely shaped by time spent within a strong church community and in families who valued religious connection. She happily remained a church-goer in adulthood while I began to drift toward less definable views. In my twenties, I described myself as an agnostic. Zoe called me an atheist, and I always corrected her.

“In the constant pursuit of truth and understanding,” I said as I told her about this new Unitarian church I’d visited and smiled as she rolled her eyes. “I believe in God, or something like God, just not in a way that’s ever been described to me before.” My searching made her uncomfortable.

“I just know what I believe. Doubt is for those who just can’t figure it out,” she said, looking at me through her eyebrows and hoping for a reaction. Unlike Tolkien, she believed all who wander are lost.

She admitted to me over time that as the years passed and the freedom of youth gave way to utility bills and relationship challenges, she found solace in the perceived clarity of “right and wrong,” “good and evil,” “fact and fiction.” She couldn’t understand why it was taking me so long to stake a claim and stick a label on it. She wanted to know what to call me, what box to put me in and how to filter what she heard. Like her, I’ve never fit perfectly into any one box in my life. Her life was so different from what she’d imagined. She began to rely upon the stark blacks and whites she knew and could control more vigorously. She couldn’t see the beauty in her multitude of gray areas any more.

I feared she wouldn’t be able to see any in mine, either. Descriptions of my explorations certainly would help her ascribe more labels, but not any I was comfortable with. Never one to judge folks quietly, I’d born witness to her sharp wit and even laughed heartily at it over the years. Those she didn’t understand were first to feel its point and, to her, folks with a metaphysical sensibility might as well have been sitting around a cauldron on brooms wearing pointy hats. News of my evolution—a new energy healing practice, formal exploration of my own and everyone’s inherent clairvoyance—went untold.

Our regular phone calls became about work stories, family dramas and news about friends from high school we’d reconnected with over social media. One such friend was her high school love. He was a charming, popular, boyishly handsome chap whose notoriety combined with unexpected life choices made him a hot topic on the high school rumor mill for more than a decade. At one point during college there was a rumor he was gay, which eventually was discredited, ultimately because everyone realized we didn’t give a flying fig if he was or wasn’t. Then unsubstantiated stories circulated about weeks spent in the wilderness, meditating with gurus, joining a commune. He eventually decided to study Chinese medicine and start a healing practice in Colorado, all using the middle name we’d teased him about throughout high school.

The years had transformed the goofiness of his youth into optimism and the openness of his spirit into a healer’s life. When we reconnected over social media, the confusion about his changed appearance and name quickly became recognition of a kindred purpose and familiar voice. Years before, he experienced the cracking open that results in a more authentic life that I was still in the midst of, and for that I admired him. In a strange way, and only in the non-patronizing way you can feel toward those you knew well when they were young, I was proud of him.

I cringed as Zoe spoke of this mutual friend, her adoring beau and silly Snoopy of old, wondering if he’d somehow lost his way. She didn’t see the opening up and settling into himself that I did. Instead she was concerned that his whimsical nature had transformed into a hippy-ish, ungrounded lifestyle she didn’t recognize. What on earth is she going to think when I start to tell her about me? Would she be able to hear me? It became like a bandage I just had to rip off.

The perfect opportunity arrived. After years as a preschool teacher, and after riding the bumpy rollercoaster herself, she understands young kids and parents on a freakishly intuitive level. When an early adoption referral fell through, she was ready with emotional support and unqualified empathy for our heartbreak. She braced for months of grieving, a general disillusionment about the process and turmoil over whether to go through with it at all. When we decided so quickly to move forward, she was confused and skeptical.

“How?” she asked.

“Do you really want to know?” I responded, then I spat out the whole story before waiting for the okay. I told her my spiritual opening played a key role in moving through this strange time. My developing skills as a clairvoyant reader helped me see the long game—this situation’s place in the larger arc of our parenting story. It provided immeasurable relief and hope.

Silence.

“You’re a clairvoyant now?” she said. “What exactly does that mean?”

I told her about chakras and how we’re all just balls of energy masquerading as bodies and healing is as easy as releasing a lightning bug and clairvoyance is as easy as being ready to see and how important it was to heal my heart so I could be my authentic self. I finished my soliloquy and gasped for air.

Silence.

I could feel her confusion, and it went at least seven layers deep. There was no outright judgment expressed, but the lack of questions, the lack of curiosity, the quick dismissal. I believed they revealed her discomfort and a doubt of my sincerity.

Determined to fully be my authentic self now that I could, I forged ahead with the friendship with a fresh attitude. If this life is about manifesting the divine here on earth, about speaking your truth no matter what, I want to do this in every part of my life, I told myself. My language became more the words I used around the house and less the ones she was used to hearing. I stopped omitting the stories about Henry laughing with his dead grandpa after we leave the room at night and how Larry and I can communicate our grocery list telepathically. Most of all, I happily told her how I thought everything in our lives happened because we chose it somehow.

There it was. It took a few phone calls, but The Truth Teller finally found the line and crossed it. Zoe reminded me she cared for too many people she believed to be victims of all sorts of terrible things.

“God would not choose such pain for us,” she said with absolute certainty.

“God doesn’t,” I said. “We have free will. That’s why I’m saying suffering, to some extent, is our own choice. Our world, our lives. They are our own making. It could be an intuitive choice made out of sacrifice, protection or love. It could be a deeply spiritual one to ensure that the greater good is served. But it’s still usually a choice.”

She reared back and lobbed what she believed would be the nuance I hadn’t considered yet. “So, you chose to get cancer?”

Without hesitation, I replied. “Yes.”

Back in the day, even years after I wrote my first memoir, I’d refused to look at how or why I’d gotten sick. Blame is pointless, I told myself. Indeed it is, but an unexamined cause is a repeated effect. If I didn’t learn all that I was to learn from that particular challenge, I was certain to repeat it until I did. Uninterested in more chemo, I chose to use my newly acknowledged clairvoyance to find the roots.

I found them. Many of them. But Zoe was gone before I could explain.

There was nothing for months this time, and her silence became my anger. Why should I have to change who I am so she’s more comfortable?

“You shouldn’t,” I heard. “Just be prepared for whatever comes.”

Out of desperation and a lot of frustration, I ignored this wise advice from my higher self. The Truth Teller, fully unprepared for what may come, picked up her pen and wrote an email explaining in detail every source of my anger. I am still a reasonable person. I’m still her old friend, I said. I was confused why she couldn’t see I’m not a nutcase. I’d like to be able to talk about my life honestly and openly. If she can’t handle it, if she can’t respect my beliefs, then maybe we shouldn’t be friends.

The minute I sent it I regretted it.

The gist of Zoe’s response: “Maybe we shouldn’t.”

The chasm between our basic philosophies about the world, life and the source of all things couldn’t be enough to keep us apart, could it? The fact that our transformations didn’t match threatened to crumble the bridge of understanding we’d built. For a short time we both feared our long friendship forged on the slippery seats of a green Chevy Nova was over.

I’d fallen down a dark and lonely cave of pride and issued an ultimatum I had no intention of substantiating. Meanwhile, my ego—an awkward cousin of The Truth Teller with a penchant for cruelty—laughed and laughed. I was so sanctimonious, so angry at her for not listening to me, so eager to jolt her into some measure of acceptance of my truth, I’d stopped listening to hers. And I stopped listening to my higher self, who now was yelling at me over the din.

“Why does it matter so much what she thinks?” I heard. “You be you. In case you’ve forgotten, that’s why you’re here.”

There’s a deep satisfaction when witnessing the natural cycle of life and death, the shedding of snakeskin, the fall of autumn leaves, a discarded cocoon, the moment a wound’s scab is no longer needed for protection. It’s all just change. It hurts when friends depart your life, but when you no longer serve each other the falling away happens naturally.

Everything about this felt unnatural.

When I sensed I’d lost Zoe, when I looked with clear eyes and listened with an open heart, I knew our lives were meant to intersect a while longer. My own insecurities and doubts about the ethereal energy I now put my faith in had come rumbling to the surface. Instead of trusting what I knew, I risked a life-long friendship to prove a point.

My heart screamed with regret and visions of shared tears and joyful celebrations to come, and it just kept screaming. Luckily, hers was screaming too.

It took less than a week of our individual panic attacks before we realized our bridge was worth repairing. I reached out, we both apologized, and over time we both discovered what we were meant to…

If we fill the chasm with love and a desire to meet each other in the echoes bouncing between its cliffs, we can weather any perceived differences. If we are comfortable in our own skins and brands of spirituality, it doesn’t matter what even our most trusted confidantes believe about them. If we tame our egos and open our hearts, whatever the butterfly’s wings look like once the transformation is underway will be gorgeous in our eyes. If we recognize it’s not the beliefs and the labels we respect but the soul with whom we share a beautifully complicated connection, we will always be okay.

I started self-editing just enough I didn’t feel I was hiding, but I wasn’t knowingly making her uncomfortable either, and she started asking questions again and often saved her jokes about crystals and wizard hats until after she hung up the phone. We allowed the other’s individual evolutions to continue at their own pace, in their own way, and we learned to admire each other’s singular colors and light.

It wasn’t (and isn’t) perfect. We continued (and continue) to work on our friendship, but knew (and know) we are true and dear friends. Perhaps we needed to walk through this particular fire together and learn where our conditions lurked before we knew that.

Two years later, Zoe called. “I’m getting a divorce.”

“I’m here,” I said. “What do you need?”

“Can you give me a reading?”

om

The Life Cycle of Truth

dandelion_life_cycle_greeting_card-r917a25e735d04a3d81d6f384a09faea3_xvuak_8byvr_324 - Version 2Nothing makes me smile wider than when I hear a perspective or idea I once offered to someone — a friend, a family member, a reader, a client, a child — offered back to me with both confidence and no recognition of where or when they first considered it. The moment the pilot light ignited is a clear and happy memory for me. For them, the energy of it is so internalized that they only know it to be true. The moment they learned it or, perhaps more accurately, recognized it is long forgotten.

I hope those who first introduced certain truths to me, the many teachers whose offerings I don’t recall, also smile when they see things I now know in the space in the center of my head, in the movement of my cells, in the pulsing of my heart. The things I’d forgotten or rejected until I watched them lived with conviction or heard them said using the words I could hear in the right moment with the right amount of clarity.

They are mine now because they were once given freely and with love. They are yours because you are open to seeing and, like me, hungry for truth.

The cycle continues as long as one being is willing to share with another.

And so it goes.

om

A Writer Lets Go: Knowing When It’s Time to Move On

Floating Books by Fanny Brennan
Floating Books
by Fanny Brennan

Writing is a turbulent journey. When you do it for long enough, you attempt nearly every kind of piece imaginable, all with varying degrees of success. Writers learn to discern quickly when something meets the need of the moment, the client, the assignment, the vision, the expectation, the expression, even the higher purpose when a greater objective is at stake.

It can be difficult to see when it doesn’t, and even harder to let it go.

Most of our work is so personal, filled with love and pain and secrets we wouldn’t tell unless the story benefited. They are that friend who demands attention at the least convenient moments, who forces you to see and make peace with the thorn in your heel you pretend you don’t feel any more, who leads you by the hand through tearful memories and makes you laugh at your own ridiculousness.

A book is a stimulating, even if infuriating, confidante. The one you need right then. Some are not meant to be with you until the end.

I wrote a book. Another one, that is. Another memoir — this one named Laugh at the Sky, Kid, inspired by the Buddhist saying. I took my time. I wrote a draft, worked on it, sat with it, offered it to both professional and trusted amateur editors, revised it, honed it, fed it, talked to it, gave it time to breathe, then took the big step of adding FINAL to its filename and my address to the cover page.

It is challenging and joyful, full of jagged truth and flowing hope. It is an invitation to anyone lost and searching in the beginning of their personal spiritual journey, as I once was. It lights one path toward greater grace and purpose, and therefore illuminates the limitless number of paths available to everyone.

I love it. Most of the people who have read it love it. Friends and family, of course, but even the writers and influencers who I have shared it with have been enormously supportive. It’s one of the reasons I hung on to her for so long.

The publishing industry, not so much. The book is difficult to place neatly in a category, making it seem tough to market despite my willingness to travel non-traditional marketing paths on my own. But right now publishers don’t have patience for noncompliant, even if enthusiastic, writers.

No bother, I said. And I meant it. I was committed to this work’s message. It had something to say beyond words and I believed it was created to be shared.

I’m smart, I said. I know people. I’m willing to spend the time and money to do this “right.” I can do it myself, get creative with distribution models. Start beneath the soil and nurture a beautiful independent commerce blossom, bright enough to be seen by anyone who needs to see it.

And so, in 2014 I committed to self-publishing in 2015 if no publishing deal was struck by then. By mid-2015, I changed the date to 2016. I believed it was because I was saving enough money to do it professionally and in a manner reflecting the purpose of the book. As the second half of 2015 arrived and self-publishing seemed more imminent, I decided to re-read this beloved manuscript that had been sitting in my laptop untouched for months.

Hm.

It needs…something, I thought. It doesn’t speak as clearly as it once did, I admitted. I’d evolved as a writer, and to revise it accordingly would require a significant amount of work, but that wasn’t it.

I’d evolved as a person and a spirit. The book, forever fixed in time, hadn’t.

This invitation I issued from my heart and soul back in 2014 doesn’t speak the same language any more. The words are identical, the ideas and stories unchanged, but everything around them has shifted, including me. Especially me. The story doesn’t resonate the way it once did. My life continues, my perception of it changes as it goes, and the world turns and evolves faster with each passing moment. Our collective human tale has transformed just enough that this particular version of mine no longer contributes to it in a way that is meaningful, or at least meaningful enough for me to spend the time and energy to publish and promote it.

Forcing it would only shove something into the world simply because that was the plan all along. If it doesn’t resonate with me anymore, it won’t resonate with anyone. If it feels compulsory, that’s how it will read.

So, through tears I concluded it’s time to make space for something else.

I will miss her, but I have no regrets. I’m glad I wrote it. It accomplished what it was supposed to. I am a different, more aware, more confident, more conscious human, parent, writer and coach for completing it. I am stronger for having struggled through the tough days. I am wiser and happier for what the process revealed. The days I soared and swam and scampered through the literary wilderness, my eyes widened with wonder, I remembered why I do this at all.

Without this piece of writing, I would not be in this place and time, open to what is to come. I will always love it and always be grateful to my dear friend for walking with me for a while.

Thank you for everyone’s interest, support and help over the last few years. It is not wasted energy. I carry it with me moving forward. New ideas are bubbling up and old ideas are showing up in new clothes. I’m just going to pause a minute before I take the next leap. It’s a big step, and I’ve learned over the years to choose my friends wisely.

om

To find out more about Rebecca’s writing coaching services, visit rebeccagifford.com or email her at giffordrebecca@gmail.com.

6 Reality Checks for New Authors

Reality-CheckThe most common questions I get from folks inquiring about my writing coaching services aren’t about writing.

Most people who have written or who want to write a book already write to some extent, probably with some amount of skill. They likely believe completing the manuscript is their strength, or at least something they can figure out along the way, and they probably believe it’s the easiest part of their publishing process.

So, once some new authors get to the part where they’re considering outside help, they are already thinking beyond the manuscript. They have moved on to that imposing question we all face…

What do I do when it’s done?

Their head swimming with the mere notion of literary agents and query drafts, they ask if I have any advice for them. My response is to say the portion of the process beyond writing and editing isn’t my area of expertise. Like many, I’m figuring it out as I go along. That said, I have some tidbits to offer based on my own experience and research.

This is not even close to an exhaustive list of things a new author needs to know, but it contains the reminders I find most valuable as I go through the publishing process myself. And it’s usually enough of a reality check to propel writers new to this world to make some crucial decisions.

  1. Slow down. You’re probably not as done as you think you are.

First-time authors are notoriously full of hubris, and likely a bit naïve, which feeds the hubris. This is said with love and empathy, but it’s the truth. Completing a book is no small task, and everyone who does this should be proud and pleased. But it may or may not be the perfect tome you believe it to be. The process of getting it where it needs to be to compete with all the other books clamoring for limited publishing space will be challenging, and even the most experienced authors need lots of help along the way.

This wake-up call will happen. There’s no avoiding it. And, it’s a good thing. The most effective way to accomplish it is to attend a writer’s conference, talk to lots of people and even pay for feedback from an editor or agent if this is offered. You’ll come out the other side feeling a bit squashed, but much more savvy and wise. Any amount of research online or a browse through the writing and publishing advice section at your local bookstore may offer a similar experience.

The most valuable thing I learned was slow down. Edit your manuscript. Now edit it again. Now edit it again. Have friends or colleagues who are writers and/or avid readers and will be honest with you read it and send you their observations and reactions. Join a (good) writer’s workshop if that’s available or appealing to you. Now have at least one reputable professional editor critique and/or edit it. Take the time to thoughtfully and sincerely consider everyone’s comments and get a little time away from the manuscript. Now read it like you’ve never seen it before and edit and rewrite as necessary. Now have someone proofread it. Now go through it again and make sure it’s as good as you know how to make it before you even think of sending out queries.

The biggest mistake new authors make is rushing. Or assuming their publisher or agent or an e-book reader will forgive major story flaws, amateurish writing or errors made because they were in a hurry to get it out into the market.

Take your time to create the book you can send out without a moment’s hesitation. Most publishers will only publish books that meet the high standards they and most readers have—quality writing, engaging content, and a unique voice and/or perspective being some of the biggies. They can teach you some of the rest (even if they don’t want to), but they can’t and won’t teach you how to write.

  1. It may be more than you thought you were getting into.

The industry is evolving rapidly, mostly due to the advent of e-books and social media marketing. Even some of the larger houses are still in the process of catching up and are cutting budgets, advances and staff. This means their sales expectations are typically high, which means they have a narrowing view of what books are worthy of their investment, which means you must meet some pretty specific criteria to be published by them. This does not mean your book isn’t good or even great. It just means they aren’t convinced it will sell with minimal effort and expense.

There are a lot of specialty and small publishing houses, which is where you (or your agent) may have better luck. But just like the larger houses, they are tightening their belts, offering little to no advances and asking for extensive rights to your book and often future work.

Before approaching any agent or publisher, you must have a strong sense of how to market your book and a willingness to do the vast majority yourself.

To that end, you will need a stellar query letter and a solid marketing proposal. You can find great advice and some good examples of these documents both online and in the myriad of books about them. I often tell new authors to start with Writer’s Market’s online subscription content, then figure out for themselves the experts and lists that are most helpful to them. There also are some professionals who specialize in getting you through this part of the process. (Here are links to Rabid Badger and Author Biz Consulting, as examples of folks who are happy to help.)

You will be expected to have not only a detailed idea of who will want to buy your book and how to reach them, but already have an impressive number of them in the hopper via social media, blog followers, podcast/newsletter/website/YouTube subscribers, radio show listeners and TV viewers, students/clients/customers, etc. The magic number will vary depending on the size of the house you or your potential agent approach.

At minimum, if you don’t already have a blog, start one and start promoting it more assertively. If you haven’t signed up for Twitter or don’t have a website or Facebook page related to your book or its content, get that going. There’s a ton more to talk about here, but it’s not my wheelhouse and it would take days to detail all the potential outlets and offer advice about the best ways to market via the web and social media. A good Google search will reveal the many, many much more qualified professionals and resources that are happy to offer advice along these lines.

  1. Know your book and why it is worth it.

The benefit of being forced to write a great query and marketing plan is that you have a built-in opportunity to soul search. It’s also a necessary business-oriented wake-up call, don’t get me wrong, and an opportunity to figure out how (and maybe if) this is all going to work. But it also is an opportunity to commit to words, as briefly as possible, why this book is worthy of your attention and the attention of potential readers.

[A quick note: If you’re in it for the money, stop reading and go find some other outlet for your energy, time and hard-earned cash.]

Why are you passionate about this story or topic?

Why is your perspective or story unique?

Why are you willing to commit to the publishing process knowing there likely isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

What will readers get from this book and why is it important for them to get it?

Are you propelled by vanity and ego, or do you have something meaningful to say?

Are you willing and able to speak openly and authoritatively about everything in your book to whomever will listen?

Bottom line: What is your intention, are you able to carry it off, and is it enough to sustain you through what will be months of pounding the literary pavement?

  1. Don’t be afraid to do it on your own, but do it well and go in with your eyes wide open.

If you don’t think you can or you don’t want to do it in a way that satisfies the traditional publishing industry, you have options. Self-publishing is more respectable and a lot easier to do well than it used to be. Depending on how you do it, it allows you to keep all of the rights and all or most of the profit.

I recommend doing it with an eye toward quality and professionalism. That means more than putting it on Amazon for a couple of dollars. If you don’t know how or you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, there are professionals and services to help you do everything from cover design and e-book formatting to setting up virtual book tours, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.

It’s a lot of work, but if the intention for the book and your commitment to it is strong enough, it can be done and done successfully. Ingrid Ricks self-published her memoir Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story and ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list for e-book nonfiction. Then it was picked up by Penguin Random House’s Berkeley Books. More on this fascinating and inspiring story here (Ingrid Ricks’s Great Escape).

That said, self-publishing also is not for the faint-hearted. More than 400,000 books are self-published every year. A great article on the reality of self-publishing can be found here (What Your Friends Can’t Tell You About Your Self-Published Book).

  1. Believe that you will reach who you’re meant to reach.

This is a lot. I know. I can feel all of your heads being cradled in your now-clammy and overwhelmed hands. Once I offer various versions of this advice to current or potential clients, some lose heart. That’s okay. There are no wrong choices. The good news is that if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably got the goods to make a go of it.

If you believe you are meant to reach people with the message of your book, then you are. They are there. Every book has an audience. Every book with positive intentions affects someone positively. Even if you have a message that’s been offered before, it has never before been offered by you. Because you haven’t said it yet, there are some who haven’t been able to hear it yet. If you’re okay with the notion that it may only be a few dozen people hearing it instead of 100,000, then I encourage you to move forward.

  1. Enjoy it. Own it.

What we focus on is what we cultivate. Though the reality check of the post-writing publishing process can be a jagged pill at first, especially for typically introverted writers, it also can be extremely gratifying and even joyful. Allow yourself to fully experience it and even like it.

See the feedback and editing process as a master class in writing.View the query process as a creative exercise and opportunity to own and spread the energy of your book. See the rejections and non-responses as preparation for the inevitable (but hopefully rare) negative reader reviews. Approach the marketing process as an opportunity to affect people directly and get immediate feedback, not just a necessary evil.

Along those lines, don’t be afraid to spread the good news about your book. No matter the outcome, it’s a great accomplishment, so own it. Once you’ve gone through this process, you should have the language to do just that, and do so genuinely, comfortably and confidently.

Remember, speaking well of your book and your expertise doesn’t mean your ego has taken over the henhouse and suddenly you’re a braggadocios rooster. When you do it with heart it just means you believe in your work and you know it’s worthy of being read and discussed.

And you know what? You’re right.

Stay strong!

Happy writing.

om

Rebecca is an author, copywriter, writing coach and editor. Find out more about that here and here. Her next book, titled the same as her blog, will be available in 2016. Find out more about that here.

Less than Impeccable: An apology to Alicia Garza and #BlackLivesMatter

handswordsI have a confession to make, and an apology. In May, not long after hearing Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter speak at a university via NPR, I wrote a blog. It spoke of my awareness that, as a human who loves my fellow humans, I must continue to speak truthfully and bravely about the systemic oppression of black Americans and, both specific to this issue and in general, be patient as I wait for consciousness to rise. All lessons remembered and learned from Ms. Garza’s speech made a few months before. The title of the blog: We All Matter.

Not long after, I became aware of reports of the organization taking issue with politicians and other groups co-opting the well-known hashtag, shifting its use or piggybacking on all they had accomplished for their own purposes. Some did this by broadening its meaning to make it more “universal” or changing it to “All lives matter” or some derivation. Ms. Garza and others appropriately are writing columns like this one (here), doing interviews like this one (here) and speaking out about how, whether the intention is positive or not, this takes the focus off of this community and the original purpose of #BlackLivesMatter, which clearly is still greatly needed. Bernie Sanders is now being interrupted regularly at speaking engagements, partially because of his off-hand remarks or inappropriate use of similar derivations, which ultimately resulted in him significantly addressing these issues in his candidate platform. Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with organizers after #BlackLivesMatterBOS (Boston) attempted to disrupt a recent appearance (read about it here). Memes like this

burning houses are circulating around social media demonstrating the dangers of such shifts away from the original purpose of the movement.

The gist of my reaction to all of this, “Yeah, people, don’t water this down! Keep the focus where it needs to be…on this community. Of course we all matter, but we all don’t have to fight so hard for basic justice. Come on!” Then I remembered my blog. A reminder about the title: We All Matter.

Embarrassed and humbled, I have revisited this piece, read it with an eye toward any language that may be read as disrespectful or may do exactly what I hastily judged others for doing. The result, with a revised title, is linked here.

I remember my writing process that day and recall I was conflicted about wanting to defend and bring awareness to the specific racial issues at hand and also embrace the universal message Ms. Garza spoke of so beautifully. I admit the more universal ideas are what got my attention, spoke to my heart and inspired me to write this. But in the writing process I diluted and even ignored a bit the story she was telling and the reality of black people in our country. I did exactly what I accused these public figures of doing — broadening an issue that is difficult to swallow in its raw form to make it more palatable and acceptable to the masses.

I’m not sure the small language edits I made correct this. I’m pretty sure they don’t. But I’m preserving this piece in its slightly revised form as a reminder to us all, but mostly me, that words, their intention and how we use them matter above most things. They can create change and shift the conversation, as recent efforts by #BlackLivesMatter chapters have proven, but they also can soften the jagged edges of the truth so much that it does not impact humanity as it should. It also will remind me that to be impeccable with my words is both critical and difficult, and that we all, including me, have so far to go.

I apologize to Alicia Garza, #BlackLivesMatter and the black community. I turned away from the truth because it was too harsh to face. I wrote what was easier to express and more comfortable to read. The whole truth is worthy of our attention, intentions, words and actions. I won’t forget this again.

om

 

Why losing your work is the best thing that could possibly happen

oh-noThe world is crashing. First United Airlines, now the New York Stock Exchange. My mind fills with conspiracy theories, but I truly have empathy for anyone feeling the pinch of these hacks…er, system glitches. In honor of the day’s excitement, I’m re-posting an earlier blog proclaiming the virtues of a clean slate and a fresh start. Whether it be created by an evil virus or simply a symptom of poor planning, it’s an opportunity to (re)create something great.

Seize it! And happy writing.

————–

My friend Rita recently posted a social media rant. It was peaceful and polite, but still a rant. She’d just spent hours on a beautiful short story, her computer did something-or-other and all of her work disappeared into the virtual equivalent of that place where all lost socks go.

She was understandably devastated, angry, frustrated and cursing her faulty auto-save feature and back-up gods. It was the first story in a collection she’s working on after being away from writing for some time focusing on her photography business (click here to go to Knots and Tots Photography) and other pursuits. She was proud of what I’m sure was a connected, creative and beautifully written piece. She was proud she’d finished it at all. Now she has nothing concrete to show for that time.

To find out more about Rebecca’s writing coaching services, head to rebeccagifford.com or send her a note at giffordrebecca@gmail.com.

It’s terrible. Heartbreaking. I’m sorry it happened to her. It’s happened to many of us at some point, and to me several times, including to an entire chapter of my most recent book. It is a loss and I have empathy.

But losing her work was probably the best thing that could have happened to Rita in that moment. It’s a lesson I share with my writing coaching clients, but often it doesn’t sink in until something like this happens.

All art, even very personal art, is only temporary. Writing is just energy. It’s frequency, intention, ideas and emotion made manifest into conscious form through words. It can and will be reimagined, reformed, recreated and reborn infinitely. It will be absorbed, perceived and reacted to (or not) differently by everyone who experiences it – often not just a little differently, but vastly differently. Once the reader absorbs it, it becomes something else. This lovely, thoughtful, creative, edited, downloaded, uploaded and intimate labor of love…it shifts, melds with the reader’s energy and essentially disappears the moment it’s been shared.

Not to worry, what you create is yours for a time. It’s connected to you, even a part of you. Most of the time it’s extremely personal. That’s why it’s so hard to watch it go earlier than you intended because you forgot to set up your iCloud backup. Once it’s released out into the world, it’s no longer yours anyway. It becomes something universal and collective. It’s a wisp, a wave, a series of codes.

There are three important lessons the universe reminds me of every time I lose my writing:

  1. There are no coincidences. If you lose a piece, even a brilliant one, there is a reason. It wasn’t meant to exist in this form. Perhaps it was a sacrifice so you could learn the universal truth that everything is always changing. Perhaps your ego or identity was too connected to it. Perhaps expectations about publication, reaction or success were too present in its creation. Whatever the reason, somehow the universe knew that it would have a greater impact if it went away and your perception was forced to shift. So it did.
  2. If you can let it go, what you create next will be even better. Every time – I mean every time – the next version of the work I lost was better than the first. And often not just a little better. Usually it’s a lot better. With time and space to germinate and reimagine its creation, you have an opportunity to tell a better story. With no ties to the previous structure or word choices, you have the freedom to explore a different path. With a sense of urgency to make up for the lost time, you are more inclined to write economically and make more thoughtful choices. As you revisit the same content again, your comfort level with it is greater. In its second draft, as with all second drafts, it becomes something more. Only this time you have the opportunity to work from a clean slate, and the result is always much better than the first.
  3. Writing well requires unconditional love. You need to love and embrace what you’re doing, every part of it, including the blocks, the doubt, the fear, the rejection. Even what Anne Lamott refers to as “shitty first drafts,” the computer glitches, the time you’re stuck in a meeting or in traffic while the fantastic idea or story you just wrote in your head floats away. These are all critical parts of the process and, as #1 clarifies, it’s all meant to happen on the path to the work you can’t wait to share with the world.  More importantly, writers need to have unconditional love for themselves as they experience all of this. Great writing is truly a labor of love and more. In this day and age there isn’t a lot of material or professional gratification to be found at the end of the Road of Persistence. The path is absolutely worth it – for the promise of great work, storytelling, connection, growth, self-expression, fun, contribution to the greater good, reaching the people who need to hear what you have to say, and the potential of at least enough abundance to continue your work. But it isn’t easy, you will make “mistakes,” and you won’t always handle them well. It’s okay. All the more reason to love yourself, forgive yourself, believe in what you’re doing and move forward.

So, Rita, please keep writing. Make sure you save early and often and have a computer back-up plan in place, but keep doing it. Because of this temporary setback, you will be a better, stronger writer and ultimately more people will benefit from your stories and perspective. I promise. Whatever you wrote once the fury subsided likely was fantastic. I can’t wait to read it.

To find out more about Rebecca’s writing coaching services, head to rebeccagifford.com. For more info on her upcoming memoir Laugh at the Sky, Kid, go to laughattheskykid.com.