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The Healing Art of Writing Memoir or Fiction

 

Isak Dinesen, writer

Isak Dinesen, writer

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story,” said Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa,” and “Babette’s Feast.” This quote beautifully puts into words why I went to the Westport Writer’s Workshop last Saturday to teach a class called “The Healing Art of Writing.”  My goal? To help people who’ve experienced grief, loss, illness, abuse, violence, addiction, or other trauma try to turn those difficult emotional experiences into compelling fiction or memoir.  I decided to teach the class partly because I know that to do this is healing, since I drew upon my own traumatic experiences to create both a novel and now a memoir. I also journaled obsessively before conceiving my novel, “Saving Elijah,” and used pieces of that journal in writing the book, so I know from experience that expressive writing is healing.  But I’m also convinced that the discipline of creating a narrative or “story” out of the chaos of emotional experience is healing from the first draft to the last. I think most writers would to some extent agree.  I know Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) would.

Here a bit about why I think so, along with steps to help you see if this might be for you:

Expressive Writing Practice: Journaling

Begin by developing an expressive writing practice such as journaling, three or four times a week, for ten or more minutes a day.  Tons of research shows that just writing about trauma, loss, grief, or illness without any regard for the writing “product” has a healing effect and improves mental, emotional and physical well-being.  This is because traumatic or emotionally charged experience is stored in the right brain as all chaotic sensation with no logic or language. When you bring language or narrative to any emotional experience as you do when you write, you bring this experience, or perhaps the memory and associated emotions of the experience into the logical, analytical left brain.  This helps integrate the two and lessen emotional reactivity, a big part of healing. In doing therapy and facilitating workshops, I’ve even seen writing help to heal people who aren’t even particularly literate.

When you do expressive writing, knock the censor monkey off your shoulder, and express your feelings without thinking about the writing “product.”  Bring it up from your guts. Don’t think about grammar, form, or appropriateness.  Don’t worry that anyone will read what you’ve written. Banish all thoughts of I wouldn’t want anyone to see this, or This isn’t any good, or  My eighth grade teacher—or my mom—told me I stank as a writer. Also banish all thoughts like, Nothing I could ever write could communicate how I feel. Write as if you were going to burn it.  Don’t burn it though, since you’ll later find gems you can use to great effect when you write your memoir or fiction.

Even after you begin writing fiction or a memoir, begin each writing session with a few minutes of journaling or other form of expressive or free writing.

Expressive Writing Practice: Exercises

Take a “Write to Heal” workshop like the one I offer.  Many individuals, hospitals, and healing centers around the country are offering these now. In my workshop, I provide exercises to help people express themselves without regard for the writing “product,” or how a reader might react, who might read it, or who might or might not be interested in reading it.  Although sometimes write-to-heal writers produce beautiful writing, I facilitate these exercises primarily for their therapeutic value.  I take the therapist’s “stance” in this setting. I empathetically accept and embrace whatever is produced., there is no literary criticism, and I make no attempt to teach the “craft” of writing, let alone the art. Sharing is optional of course, but there is also some therapeutic value to being “witnessed” and to “witnessing.”

Also, do the exercises on this website, or the exercises in books like Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” Bonnie Goldberg’s “Room to Write,” or Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Again, make this a practice, several times a week.

Blogging: Is this expressive writing?

Nowadays many people blog episodically about their feelings and experiences around personal trauma, loss, or illness.  Blogging can of course be healing too, in the sense that all writing can be healing. However, I suspect most bloggers do at least some selecting and revising before they publish, and so blogging isn’t true expressive writing in which no attention is given to the product.  I hope so, because some blogs of this sort gain huge readerships.  Readers actually read ONLY because they feel moved, entertained, instructed, or compelled to READ ON; readers, even readers of emotional blogs, don’t take the therapist’s stance of empathy and compassion and acceptance of feelings whatever they are. (You can certainly see this in some comments.) Which means the blogger who has made no attempt to process or intellectualize experience, distance herself from it, and prepare it and herself for the reactions of others can find herself retraumatized as readers who don’t empathize with her feelings react to or criticize the writing.  I think publishing unprocessed emotional writing even in this confessional age can be VERY be psychologically risky. Oh my goodness, it was psychologically healing to give voice to my anger in my own journal after my son’s death, but publish that journal?  No way.

On the other hand, it is also true that no matter how many revisions and how much processing you do before you publish any piece of writing, readers are going to bring their biases, craziness, projections, interpretations, and misinterpretations to it.  David Sedaris put this brilliantly when he said:  “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize that it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.  But even the “illusion” of control can be a good defense. Where would we all be without our illusions?

Write a memoir or fiction

Obviously not everyone can write a novel or a memoir, or would even want to, but the twenty women who came last Saturday to my class, each of whom has experienced trauma, illness, abuse, or loss, presented themselves as wanting to learn how to turn their experiences into stories in the literary form of fiction or memoir.  I treated them like writers.

Yes, it’s hard to speak candidly to someone who’s experienced something awful that lies at the pit of her soul and who lives and breathes this thing every day.  It’s hard to tell someone who’s gotten used to simply writing her feelings that there might be a more effective way to present them to help readers want to hear them. First of all, she’s been writing and knows how healing it feels to write, which is probably one of the reasons she’s decided she wants to bring her writing into literary form. Another is that she feels she has something important to share with others, some lesson learned, some hurdle crossed.  (Therein, of course, may lie the arc or even the plot of her story.  How DID she overcome that awful thing?)

I think some, although certainly not all writing teachers would find it hard to tell someone who, for example, is writing about the profound and devastating experience of losing a child that some of her words don’t compel the reader to turn the page, don’t communicate effectively, confuse, or even turn the reader off.  I am of course sensitive to this, but I am tough-minded too because I know that learning craft and bringing it to your writing helps you intellectualize and separate from traumatic experience in a very unique way.

I know that even if feedback at first feels hurtful or invalidating, it’s actually the opposite.   A reader or teacher who offers honest feedback actually validates your experience by showing she cares enough about it to help you express it more effectively, say by helping you learn the components of a scene, or by pointing out that you’ve “told” something rather than “shown” it.

And I know that every time you hear and tolerate criticism about what you have written about your trauma, and every time you decide (using your analytical left brain) to accept or reject that criticism, you distance yourself from the emotion of that trauma.

“Kill your babies,” Faulkner said about writers and their words, and the would-be memoir or fiction writer must learn to tolerate hearing that she must kill some of her babies. (You should pardon the pun.)

Yes, it’s a long grueling process, but…

  • We heal as we learn and apply writing “craft,” which after all is a discipline that comes out of left brain thinking.
  • We heal each time we rewrite or revise, because when we rewrite we rethink, re-remember, and re-imagine our experience, memories, even our whole life. Psychology and neuroscience have proposed many different models of memory, but one truth is: We do not remember our experiences, we only remember our last retrieval of our memory of our experiences.  As we gather our short and long term memories to write a memoir or fiction, we revise those memories to fit them into the emotional arc (or plot) we are creating.  Often this is a new vision of ourself as hero rather than victim in our own life story.
  • We heal each time we turn chaotic emotional experiences into work that fits within an accepted literary form, uses language in an evocative way, has narrative drive, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Doing all this involves intellectual, logical left brain thinking and tamps down emotional right brain thinking.  No one wants to read about a victim, or at least not a victim all the way through.
  • We heal as we learn to self-observe, as we discipline ourselves to make the hard choices about which elements of lived experience to include or exclude, and how best to organize and express material in order to compel readers to READ ON.
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Storytelling and Reading with the MouseMuse troupe: Join us

I had a beautiful experience doing writing to heal last night with a group of courageous and wonderful people. Now it’s on to storytelling on December 6… Six of us on the same theme, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” for 10 minutes: Fran Dorf, Tom Finn, Josh Kaplan, Chad Kinsman, Hugh Samuels, Rebecca Toon plus 3 brave volunteers.  While my story is on its face about a car crash a few years, what it’s really about surviving all my “tsuris.”  All my stories are about that.  Join me.

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                                                                    * * * * * *

And for this one on December 11th, I’m getting back on stage to read a few bits from my memoir: “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories.”  Also, of course, about surviving “tsuris.”  Can’t help it.  I’m the “tsuris” queen.  Thinking about reading a relatively serious bit about breast cancer called “Plastic Man,” and a lighter bit about my Grandma Rose, she of the vast bosom and orthopedic shoes.  I don’t know….is a bar the best place to read this? Well, whatever.  It seems Ina has adopted me.   14381_494841040550674_311216169_n

Writing To Heal – December 4th Stamford JCC

Looking forward to facilitating…

JConnect_October2-1-1Writing to Heal: A workshop for people who’ve suffered grief, loss, trauma, or illness Tuesday, December 4th 7:30 PM Stamford JCC, 1035 Newfield Avenue,Stamford

No previous writing experience necessary. Free and open to the community. For more information or to register for the workshop, please contact Eve Moskowitz, JFS Director of Clinical Services at 203-921-4161 ext. 122 or email at emoskowitz@ctjfs.org

OR JUST COME!!!!

                                                                 *        *       *

Creativity and Healing: Let The Little One Inside You Sing

Physicians, medical students, psychologists, poets, and other helpers, healers, and writers interested in the healing power of writing hugging a giant Cypress tree at the “Healing Art of Writing” conference in San Rafael, California, July 18, 2012. The guy in the light print green shirt looking away is the gifted John Fox, author of one of my favorite books on this subject, “Poetic Medicine.”

Why do we feel so satisfied when we engage our creativity?    Why is singing, writing a play, cooking a wonderful meal, designing a building or outfit, composing a song or sonata, capturing a particular moment in a photograph, or coming up with a new idea, method, or a way of looking at things in the brainstorming session at work so fulfilling?  Why does using our imagination feel so wonderful? Why does making the metaphor that perfectly describes something by comparing it to something else feel so gratifying?  Why do people make art anyway?  Why do people write?

A man is struggling to go on after losing someone he loves.  A beloved wife.  I ask him to try a simple writing exercise, and he runs with it.  He is not a “poet,” but he produces poetry, beautiful and true.  He has turned pain into beauty, and he finds the process satisfying, cathartic, healing.

Or take my own experience.  I was already a writer when I lost my son in 1994, and yet afterward I simply refused to write for a number of years.  I refused because writing was what I did before, and that life seemed over.  But the problem was I was cutting off my most available path to self-healing: my writing, my own creativity.   It was only out of sheer desperation that I began writing again three years later.  It turned out that the process of writing (my novel, Saving Elijah) was the very thing that helped me free myself from the prison and the merciless solitude of my sorrow.  Writing that book saved my life.  Everything I write now contributes in some way to my own self-healing process.

And it isn’t the applause we might crave at the end of our creative process that drives us, or that heals us.  It’s the process itself.  A writing mentor of mine always says, “Writing is a process, not an event.” This is, of course, true of all creative acts.  If you’re worrying about how what you’re doing will be received, your desire for acclaim, or your fear of rejection, you simply aren’t in the process.

I was recently honored and thrilled to be a part of an extraordinary gathering in San Rafael, California called The Healing Art of Writing.  The conference drew physicians, medical students,  psychologists, social workers, poets, a musician or two, and other helpers, healers, artists, and writers interested in the healing power of creative expression, in this case writing.  Just being in the presence of so many people accessing their own creativity or learning to facilitate creativity in others to heal was incredibly moving and healing.

Why is the creative process so healing?  I’m convinced that when we engage in creative expression–through writing, art, coming up with that new idea, or in whatever way we can–we feel healed because we have moved back into or toward our original state of creative bliss, a state from which we gradually separated in response to the reality of life and the demands of a sometimes harsh world.

Consider my grand daughter.  She’s two, and her creative spirit is still completely pure.   Every moment of every day she is deep into her own creative process, she lives in a wellspring of pure joy at her own imagination and creativity. When she walks down the street, she doesn’t just walk, she claps, dances, or skips, and she sings or tells herself a story at the top of her little lungs.  Her song might be one she’s making up or one my daughter taught her, and her story might be about the moon and stars, or Elmo, or a purple cow.  She doesn’t care that cows are black and white, in her mind and creative imagination they can also be purple. Everyone on the street smiles, as if to acknowledge how adorable she is, maybe to share in the knowledge that children are such creative little souls who unlike the rest of us can live so in the moment, so in the creative process, unconcerned with outcome.  Watch my granddaughter now as she becomes angry and has a tantrum when you tell her to do something other than the incredibly creative thing she is doing at this very moment.  She doesn’t care that you might be trying to save her life when you insist she stop clapping and hold your hand because you’re going to cross the busy street. All she knows is that you’ve interrupted her creative process, her joyous in-the-moment creativity.

You can see the effect this kind of interruption has as a child gets older.  Few ten or fourteen-year-olds would skip and dance down the street singing at the top of their lungs, for fear of the outcome, the rejection.

A loving, nurturing, encouraging environment in childhood supports a person’s ability to appropriately access his or her own creativity as a source of self-healing. I always feel so sad when I sit with people who were subjected to a non-nurturing, restrictive, neglectful, abusive, traumatic, or rigid environment that stifled their once-brilliant creativity, and even made them lose their ability to connect back to it as a way of self-healing. Some are virtually paralyzed by self-condemnation, just as I was after my son died.  Some cannot even begin imagine their lives differently.  They continue to think the condemning thoughts and feel the hurtful feelings others have foisted upon them, a process that destroys rather than creates.

So remember that no matter what field you’re in, or where you are in your life, or what trauma you’ve experienced, you always have the power to connect to your original state of creative bliss, and even use the process of creating as a way of self-healing  That little child is still in there, singing blissfully at the top of her lungs.  All you have to do is find her.

Next post: Ways to find her.

Offending the bereaved: Thoughts on the controversy around the upcoming DSM V proposed “grief guidelines”

Michael Max Dorf, a month or so before.

Who would have ever thought there could be a controversy around grief?

In the last few months, in my other (non-writing) life as a therapist, I have heard the devastating stories of several people seriously traumatized by their past contacts with the mental health system, people with a lasting legacy of pain from being (probably wrongly) prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs or placed against their will on a terrifying psych ward. I’m definitely not a conspiracy theorist, one who says things like “everything happens for a reason,” or assigns existential “meaning” to every happening, and so I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that I’ve heard so many stories like this lately. I obviously recognize that many dedicated people in the field are doing work that manages to be both life-saving and compassionate, yet these awful stories also underscore the need for folks setting the parameters in the field–the task force considering changes in the upcoming edition of the “bible” for clinicians, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (so-called “DSM V) to the various “diagnoses” around grief–to at least try to get it right.  It seems to me that those of us working in the field who are honored every day to do this work, to witness people’s deepest pain, have a duty to at least speak out when it appears that a grave and possibly for some folks dangerous injustice is being contemplated.

Partly because of the experience I mention above, and partly as a response to a wonderful “Open Letter to to the DSM Task Force” posted by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore on her own website (which I’m linking to here) , I’d like to add my own voice to all those professionals and offended bereaved people weighing in on this disturbing and upsetting controversy.

As readers of this blog surely know, I too lost lost a child, my son, Michael, who died in 1994, and I’ve been living with, and thinking, studying, and writing about grief ever since. (Let me assure the reader that I’ve also done lots of other things, including recover my sense of humor.)  My writing inspired by this includes a highly acclaimed novel, “Saving Elijah,”  published by Putnam in June, 2000.  After that I (eventually) went back to grad school to get a second masters degree in social work, mostly in order to work with the bereaved, even though I already knew from experience what one bereaved human being needs from another human being.  More recently I’ve been working on a kind of memoir, which I’m calling, “Excerpts: Complicated Grief.”  Included in the memoir is a recounting of the day I first heard in grad school that we were to label grief that lasts longer than two months (now according to all accounts of the upcoming DSM V apparently further reduced to two weeks) as pathology, call it “complicated,” call it a “disorder.”  Even twelve years after my son’s death, this felt like an accusation.  How could it not?  How could they not see that this is damaging to the very people it purports to “help?” It was as if feeling the terrible sorrow I had felt, sometimes even still felt (still sometimes feel now), wasn’t “normal.” Yet I knew full well that it was “normal,” both from my own experience and from talking to scores, even hundreds of other bereaved parents.

I’ve written the memoir in the second person, and it moves backward from the present to the day of the loss, in an attempt to show how grief can (while still being “normal”) reverberate throughout every corridor of a life, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, sometimes as a source of wisdom, sometimes as source of pain or anxiety, but always present.

It opens on what would have been my son’s 21st birthday.

October 22, 2011, seventeen years after. Stand at the dryer, slap in wet clothes, try to form an image of a strapping young man turning twenty-one today.  See only a sturdy toddler.   Like a failed magic trick.

Go to the cemetery, brush away leaves, place stones on the brass and marble marker. Stand in the thick, humid air.  Say Kaddish,  forget the last part.  Try to remember Michael but conjure up only bones in a tomb, shreds of boy and turtle, earthworms, fecund soil.  Say the word fecund aloud, the hard k sound rattling the teeth. Remember your husband falling into the grave. Wonder why you  come.  Get back into your car pursing your lips as if tasting something moldy. Think of old metaphors, new similes. Grief always comes alone to a child’s grave. Grief is no longer a thundering, hissing monster.  Grief is hollow now, like the blunt thud of rock on stone…….

The core problem comes in my view from the pathologizing of the normal human emotion of grief by calling it any kind of a disorder. And so whether you call it an “adjustment disorder related to bereavement,” and give it one year before you dial it up into an even more serious “disorder,” or whether it becomes “major depressive disorder” at two months, or at two weeks, seems to me secondary to the fact that it is called a disorder in the first place.

A child’s death?   At two weeks you’re still in shock. You’re just getting started at two months. Maybe. Actually, it seems to me that it would actually be “abnormal” for a parent who lost a child to not feel overwhelmed and debilitated by sorrow (and to experience many of the attendant symptoms that echo but are not the same as those for depression) at two months out, let alone two weeks out. I would venture to say this is probably true even at one year.  I remember visiting a friend of my mother’s who at age 100 was still talking about her fifteen-year-old son’s death in a car accident fifty years before as if it had happened that day. Personally, I would still call hers “normal” grief. And so the learned people figuring out the DSM seem to have had it backwards all along, and now seem to be doubling down on having it backwards.

I certainly agree that what people who have suffered loss need is (as Dr. Joanne says), human connection, caring, and compassion, or as the Lancet said: Time, Compassion, Remembrance, Empathy.  I believe it’s an insult to think that a pill could be any kind of substitute for that. I remember a good, well meaning friend wanted me to take medication, but even though I was suffering mightily, walking around in my bathrobe (not only figuratively) for three years, I somehow knew that it would do no good at all to try and mask the symptoms, because a certain amount of tears needed to be shed.  Luckily no clinician suggested medication.  I’m not sure what I would have done, given my state of mind, if one had.  The idea that we can “medicate” away the pain of grief isn’t about the bereaved, it’s about those who are uncomfortable with being witness to pain. As Rumi says,

We are pain and what cures pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours. I want to hold you close like a lute, so that we can cry out with loving. Would you rather throw stones at a mirror? I am your mirror and here are the stones.

In other words, the healing from the pain is in the pain.  So it is.

My favorite definition of compassion is the Buddhist one: “Willingness to be close to suffering.”  That’s what I do, what all of us who want to help do, we open our hearts to someone’s suffering.  We witness.  We don’t try to fix it.   I always say: Be present. Be humble. Be patient. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen

It seems to me that this isn’t only about the pharmaceutical industry, it’s even more about the insurance industry, which seems to be in the business of not paying for whatever it can possibly get out of. (And not just in the area of grief.)  In this case the insurance industry seems to want to get out of any paying for anything other than that which has medication as the first line of treatment, and which labels grief a “mental illness,” or a “disorder” of some kind (an outcome that can stay in a person’s record forever, with terrible, terrible consequences).

It’s a sickening conundrum, it puts people who want to provide support for the bereaved who seek it in a terrible position, and of course it puts the bereaved in an even worse position.  Aren’t we trying to help them?  Surely we are. And one of the things we must do to help them is “normalize” what they’re feeling.  Yes, I wailed at the top of my lungs in a hospital room, but so would you.

As clinicians, we have the “V” bereavement code, but insurance generally doesn’t pay for treatment if you use this as a diagnosis. To receive payment from insurance, it has to be a “disorder.” And so to get insurance to cover our effort to help people make their way through grief, we are actually forced to call it some kind of disorder, even when we know it isn’t.  (This is, by the way, actually true for many situations, for example anger management.  Insurance won’t pay for people looking for help with “anger issues” unless you slap on a some kind of a “disorder” label.

Some, no doubt, will think I’m a hopeless idealist, or a radical left winger for believing that Americans, the “richest” country on earth, ought to provide universal health care that enables people to get the health care they need, no matter what their financial or job situation.  I don’t care.  I still must speak the truth as I see it.  And there simply ought to not only be health care for all, there should be some other terminology that acknowledges the debilitating nature of what I’ve called “big time grief,” and also provides coverage for people to get the proper, compassionate psychological support they need in difficult times.

All of us can be hopeful that the outcry from the grief community around this issue will, like the outcry to de-pathologize homosexuality in the 1970s, result in a de-pathologization of grief.  From a practical standpoint, under our current disaster of a health insurance system, we are required to diagnose some kind of “disorder” or there is no insurance coverage for clinical services.  In the absence of a complete rethinking of the whole system (oh, for such an outcome!; let’s just hope the misguided politicians won’t succeed in their threat to repeal the so-called “Obamacare” coverage for everyone), we can only hope that whatever happens, good clinicians (and particularly psychiatrists with their ready-meds) recognize that the DSM is at best an imperfect guide, and can tell the difference between grief and either adjustment “disorder,” or major depressive “disorder,” whatever must be recorded as a diagnosis to get coverage.

I invite you to share your grief story as a comment.

Inspiration: What I loved and learned in Austin, Texas, at SXSW

Actor, inspirationalist Jeffrey Tambor adding a little human-to-human interactive to the mostly computer-interactive festivities at SXSW in Austin. For examples of his inspiration, see below.

Over the weekend, after a bumpy, scary plane ride in stormy weather, I found myself in Austin, amidst a gathering of about 80,000 geeks, hipsters, techno-geeks, networkers, web designers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, advertising types, actors, writers, directors, film and music enthusiasts and others who came for an incredible event called South By Southwest, techno-affectionately dubbed SXSW Interactive.  It originally started as a film and music festival, but the computer/interactive/startup folk (mostly young people who live, breathe, sleep, and worship at the ALTAR OF TECHNOLOGY), may have in the last few years actually overtaken the film and music folk. I went to support my entreprenadorable husband, Bob Dorf, who with his co-author and partner, Steve Blank, have just released their amazing, erudite new book, a step by step guide to starting new businesses called, THE STARTUP OWNERS MANUAL, which was making its debut there.  They hardly needed my support.  Literally thousands came to hear Steve speak, and to buy the book and get both of their autographs.

Yes, I was a hanger on, an extra, an overwhelmed but fascinated older-person, a wife.  And yes, given my own sensibilities as a writer, therapist, middle aged woman, seeker-of-calm-and-clarity, and only (so far) half-assed dabbler in the techno-arts, my take on the thing and my focus–not to mention my ability to cope with or even understand some of it–is no doubt quirky.  And yes, I do wish all that young brain power could be harnessed toward enterprises that will feed the hungry instead of enterprises like making websites for brides-to-be. Nevertheless, I had a blast soaking it all in, and I mean the soaking part literally since it was freezing and raining all weekend until the sun finally came out on Sunday and the festival started to take on the feel of a real party, a college campus on steroids.

I had a blast because of Austin itself, in which I didn’t see even one ten-gallon-hat, which seemed to me to have literally nothing to do with my vision of the state of which it is the capital, and which aggressively lives up to its motto, Keep Austin Weird, even I suspect when the hoards of youthful techies aren’t in town.

I had a blast because the whole event was part circus and part business meeting, and any time you can use circus and business meeting in the same sentence that’s okay with me.

Fran and Alison at the Museum of the Weird in Austin

I had a blast because I got to hang out all weekend with my friend Alison, Steve’s wife; and of course with my brilliant husband and his brilliant co-author, Steve Blank; and in the beautiful but reputedly haunted Driskill Hotel with a guy named Oren Jacob, filmmaker and “technologist,” who did a lot of the work on the wonderful Pixar film, “Toy Story,” (among others) and is working on a start-up (www.toytalk.com)that I suspect will revolutionize interactive toys for kids; and in a seriously weird Austin restaurant at a table with a guy who funds documentary films about important, profound subjects at the National Endowment for the Humanities; and with a crazy Jordanian cabdriver who kept swerving the cab as he pointed out the window at various freak shots, and shouting, “LOOK AT THAT! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?”

I had a blast because so many of the young women there were dressed in clothes you’d have to call Hipster-Mismatch-Strange. (As opposed to Tory Burch and Kate Spade, where I live.)  What do I mean by that?   Okay, so picture a skinny twenty-five year old, maybe with dreadlocks, wearing boots, striped leggings, a polka dotted skirt, a paisley shirt, maybe a fur vest.  Now picture another skinny twenty year old with pink hair, a pierced nose and tattoos, wearing red sneakers, green pants, and a sleeveless orange and blue striped dress over the pants. Now multiply that by hoards of girls, each one making her own little Hipster Mismatch Strange Statement and you’ve got it. (Okay, so let’s not even talk about the attire at Woodstock.)

I had a blast because I loved the session by Danah Boyd about the culture of fear in this interactive age, about bullying and fear-mongering by governments, and about the positive vs. negative consequences of our increased ability to connect.  Even though she offered no real conclusions I was happy to see that serious people in the generation that grew up in this teched-up culture are looking at this very scary, upsetting phenom.

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the techno-geek session I attended called “The Secret Lives of Links,” although the guy who presented was quite lively and had great slides. I guess I went because it sounded sexy.

I loved the talk by Rainn Wilson, he of “The Office” fame, who also did a very weird turn as the funereal love interest of the mother, Ruth, in my favorite television show of all time, “Six Feet Under.”  Rainn was talking primarily about his hot and wonderful website, www.soulpancake.com, in which random people post soul-stirring, important questions, such as: “You have five minutes to address the delegates at the General Assembly in the UN.  What do you say?” and “Will technology be used to save or destroy us?” and “Does religion need to be destroyed for spirituality to flourish?” …. And then random others offer answers.  As an example of the power of the internet to stir creativity and self-expression, Rainn’s website is a wow.  I’m thinking on my question right now.

Most of all, I was deeply moved by the combination seminar-theater-stand-up-disguised-as-an-acting-workshop given by the well known character actor, Jeffrey Tambor, (www.http://www.jeffreytambor.net/) who dispensed laughter and wisdom by the bucketful, mostly while “directing” a scene between two young people (possibly actors) who seemed to have been chosen just because they showed up, whose lines were basically:

He: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

She: “Yes, yes yes, don’t tell me no, you motherfucker.”

The wonderful Jeffrey brilliantly coaxed the two to do it as themselves, as bad asses, by yelling, in French accents, as femme fatales, by putting in three “naughties,” as comedy, as tragedy, and with a gun.   He even got them to sing it.

Among the many memorable bits of advice Mr. Tambor dispensed and I wrote down (since my memory isn’t too great) were:

“We’re here to be the enemy of the status quo.”  (This brings me back to my hippie roots, of course. I miss that.)

“The problem is that most of us want to be good.” (This reminds me of my favorite quote in life, from Huxley’s classic dystopian techno-vision, Brave New World, so much of which seems now so prescient: “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Enjoy everything, adore everything.” (Well, we can try, on the theory that everything, even that which is awful, can be looked at a learning experience.)

“If someone goes after your confidence, call them out.” (Not sure this applies to the average person, who could easily be fired for it, but I like it anyway.)

“Confidence is the game in life and art” (I wanted to ask him if that applies to writing too, but I didn’t have the guts.)

“Do what you want. Don’t be scared that people are going to be mad at you.” 

“I get up in the morning with the vultures at my head, and I always make my bed before I do anything else.” (By which he meant he chases away the vultures who attack his confidence.  Hmm. I’m glad to hear that even a highly successful actor with a long and distinguished career has those circling vultures too.  It’s a little more difficult for me to rid myself of them, but at least I strive to be a bed-making vulture-chaser.)

Being a person whose confidence wavers moment by moment, and one who has sometimes worried that people are going to be mad at her, I was not only moved, I fell in love with the fabulous Jeffrey.

How to calm and become clear

Take a look at this.  It appears to be a photograph taken by a photographer  standing (or maybe kneeling) inside that house looking through the windows at the sky and ocean at a particular moment in time. But since it’s actually a photograph of a painting created by an artist who was presumably (although not necessarily) standing inside that house at a different moment or moments, within this picture both the consciousness of the photographer and the artist and each of their perspectives and moments are present at once.

I love this photo because it helps me remember to maintain perspective.   Sometimes I forget this and become caught up in my own nonsense.  I suspect you do too.  The photograph of the painting reminds me that suffering binds us up in our own egos, as mine did spectacularly when I was so bereaved over the loss of my son, even now occasionally when I get depressed, mostly over egocentric things like ambition, failure, success, etc.  The painting reminds me that even though each of us lives inside our little lives, bound by our egos and our particular place and time, we are all are a part of the sand of a vast universe of which we are absolutely integral and which is also utterly indifferent to us.  How do I know this?  I’m not a religious person, and in fact I loath so much of religion, feel it’s responsible for much of the trauma that occurs on our planet, and recoil in horror when governments allow or promote faith over science.  (I always wonder why would God give humans these big brains with which we could eventually discover, measure, and categorize the universe in scientific ways, and then want us to ignore or discount all we’ve learned in favor of what humans believed by “faith” before there was science. Makes no sense to me.)

And yet, I have actually had several transcendent moments in my life.  One occurred when I was writing.  I was sitting at my desk working on my third novel, the one that means so much to me, because I believe that writing it, the process of writing it, saved my life after losing my son, yanked me from the prison of my own suffering ego.  I was struggling mightily with plot and character, and with the idea that I could never write a novel about a woman recovering from grief over the loss of her son since a woman who loses a child never “recovers.”

Suddenly I felt as if time had slowed to a virtual crawl, almost stopped. I could hear the ticking of the clock, and see every corner of my office and item on my desk, and then all at once  I felt as if I had separated from my body, moved beyond my office and my desk, and yet I was simultaneously sitting there, inside my body and my own consciousness, listening to my clock ticking, and also looking at myself from outside my body, from someplace else and everyplace else, and from both inside and outside every other consciousness in the universe that has existed or will exist. A feeling of complete calm and knowing came upon me. It was as if I had transcended the boundary of my own ego and achieved God consciousness.  Some might say I was having a breakdown.  Maybe I was.

Yet that was the moment when the whole plot of my novel emerged.  I had been suffering with grief for years, then suffering to write a novel about that grief for many years after that.  The “ghost” of the novel, who is kind of a personification of the psychological process of grief, came to me in that moment of transcendence.  The ghost (or demon, really) would pose all the ego-laden questions to the horribly suffering mother that any bereaved mother asks herself, all the questions I had been asking myself for years, the where did I go wrong, what did I do to deserve this, am I going crazy, questions. He would engage her in a kind of review of her life, mock her place in the world, her right to be here, her sanity; he would mock all, just as I had been doing in missing my boy, wondering whose fault it was, and hating myself and everyone else, and the universe that would do such a thing to me, in fact.  All grief, all suffering, all of it, is bound up in “I” –the ego.  But from that moment on…well, it was as if I was channeling the ghost and his dialogue.  It was as if both he and his dialogue had already existed somewhere in the universe, along with everything else that exists, will exist, or has ever existed. It was as if my transcendent moment–and it was only a moment–had allowed me somehow to gain access to him, and this access took me relatively swiftly to the completion of the book. Which vastly decreased my suffering.

When we detach from our suffering egos, we become calm and the path and the way becomes clear.