Harnessing Monkey Mind

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It’s 6:00 pm as I write this, and I’m falling into an over-satiated coma from leftover Chinese food. The veggie chow fun and orange chicken have commingled in my stomach to create a kind of greasy, garlicky mass. After a day of scheduling and meetings at the school where I’m a language arts specialist, my mind is in the midst of a tornado, a deep throbbing at my temples.

But I’m determined that this will be my year to take my writing as seriously as my teaching. So, Chinese food coma or not, here I sit at my desk ready to write. The monkey statue my mom gave me guides my attention tonight. He’s so happily meditative on what appears to be a book of wisdom, reminding me to turn the distraction of what Natalie Goldberg calls “monkey mind” back around to focus on my work.

Calling to me at the moment are two projects. First, I need to finish editing a novel I wrote about a reading comprehension teacher who has just discovered that life isn’t nearly as comprehensible as he’d hoped. But, at the same time, another project begs for my attention like a puppy, panting and wiggling around with all its playful charm. This novel, tentatively titled Spoiler Alert, tells the tale of a man who begins to hallucinate diabolical visions after watching the sneak preview of a movie, only to find out a year later that the film is being released nationwide and he’ll have to warn people about its mind-altering effects.

Just the prospect of a new project, after nearly nine months of deep focus on the first book, has me excited. But that new pet will just have to wait a bit longer.

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Writing the World We Imagine

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Words are powerful. Whether it’s a letter to an elected official about an issue you care about or poetry that express your deepest passions, the words you choose make an impact on the world. I want to begin a creative community writing project that will directly impact our world and simultaneously start a discussion to spark further change.

Introducing Pitiless Blue Sky.

A collection of poetry and short stories themed loosely around climate change, homelessness, and social justice, Pitiless Blue Sky will be the culminating project of a writing class exploring these themes. Through playing with poetic forms and devices including symbolism, metaphor and voice, I will guide participants in creating poetry and short fiction to channel our anger, fear, and hopelessness into powerful healing voices for the world.

The title of the anthology comes from the poem “My Country,” written in 1908 by the 19-year-old poet Dorothea Mackellar after she witnessed the breaking of an Australian drought. The poem – with its imagery of a beautiful countryside burnt by a harsh sun – has recently become a rallying cry as the repercussions of global warming are being seen across Australia and the world.

All proceeds from sales of the anthology will go to the Environmental Defense Fund, a 4-star charity at Charity Navigator. Their mission is to “solve the most critical environmental problems facing the planet, focusing on mitigating climate change, restoring the ocean’s bounty, protecting wildlife and their habitats, and safeguarding our health.”

Sneak Preview: The Reviewer

The premise of my new novel-in-progress:

After answering an advertisement to be an early reviewer for a sneak preview of a disturbing movie, David experiences a series of hallucinations, a different hallucination each day for six days before the whole pattern repeats, endlessly. Some of the visions are so devastating and frightening they nearly cause his death. Since they began a year ago, he’s developed strategies for coping with them, even beginning to play with them and use them to heighten his perception and engagement with life. He tries to track down the filmmakers and other reviewers, to no avail. 

A year later, the movie is released to the public. As the whole country begins to experience the same hallucinations, David decides to warn everyone and act as a guide to the disturbing visions. After his first press conference, he’s detained by the CIA, suspected of playing a role in creating the mass hallucinations. When he’s finally freed, he reluctantly leads a group of revolutionaries who might use the visions to find a way to a better life, or escape them completely.

Stay tuned for more details and excerpts.

Fearless Dog

Home from climbing boulders at the beach

Trixie’s bravery has surged

on walks she pulls me along

making her deposits on the brink

between apartment buildings

among the crunchy slippery leaves

on a hillside a hundred feet up

over scrub oaks and madrones

vibrant and all aglow

so when I go to bag her waste

my heart dances down in the wind.

The Power of Juxtaposition

“Simultaneously experiencing two emotions that aren’t typically felt together – such as frustration and excitement – encourages creative insights,” says Emma Young in the July 25 issue of New Scientist.

Here’s some powerful data supporting freewriting, or brainstorming. I love to open a book of writing prompts and let my unconscious mind go wild, not editing or thinking consciously as I write. The point is the process, not the product, but I’ll often be surprised about the interesting ideas that bubble up from the wandering mind.

Seeing a visual prompt or reading a poem that evokes contradictory emotions primes the mind for creative thought. “That might be,” says Young, “because it signals that you are in an unusual environment, making you alert to the possibility of other relationships.” Then our mind starts playing with ideas more readily, seeing the world as a child might perceive it, prestructured. That cord snaking out from the lamp becomes an actual snake, sticking its prong fangs into the wall. The dog bed by the window, the one we call Trixie’s brown doughnut, becomes an actual doughnut, discarded by a distracted giant during the night as we slept.

First I turn off all my smart phone alerts and social media. Distractions interrupt this wonderful daydreaming discovery time by calling us back to our ordinary, orderly lives. At first, as I begin to write, the mundane objects of life weight heavily on my mind. But the writing process itself is a desert wind scented with aromatic blossoms, blowing me toward exotic places. The farther I wander with it, the more interesting the dreams and visions become.

Writing From the Silence

This morning at 9:00 it was hot already. I’ve been wanting to go for a swim in the pool at our apartment complex ever since we moved here six months ago, but never got up the courage. I don’t like showing off my leg braces to the world, so walking down to the pool in shorts presents a problem. In addition, the braces are clunky and awkward to pull on and off and leave beside the pool.

This morning I discovered a solution. It turns out I don’t need to wear braces in order to put on shoes; I just slipped them on over my bare feet and headed for the pool. It was totally worth the risk and the work. I had the pool all to myself, did some laps and floated on my back for awhile before heading back up for coffee and breakfast, invigorated and ready for the day.

I love the quiet underwater, and the way my senses awaken when I let my body float. My mental chatter fades and the bright purple morning glories climbing the wall explode into life. I feel my breath, my heartbeat.

I’m approaching my writing the same way I approached the pool this morning, taking risks, trusting myself. First I discovered a character. From the silence, my awareness of self emerged first. Who is this character, living this life? I want to get to know him better, find out what he loves, what he fears, how to challenge him.

Then there’s setting. Stilling my mind in the pool, I allow myself to slowly come to awareness of all the sensations of my surroundings, from the bright, drowsy warmth of the morning to the cool water. Now, writing in the semi-darkness of my office, I’m acutely aware of my world but centered in it rather than distracted by it.

And what’s a story without conflict? By confronting my own fear, facing it and conquering it, I prepare myself for the next challenge. Those quiet moments of reflection, swimming, stilling my mind in the silence, feel completely honest and vulnerable, allowing me to feel the character, setting, and conflict of my life. Taking that first risk, I open a space for more awareness throughout the day, and for deeper honesty and perception in my writing.

Tertiary Conundrums

I enjoy the sound of this: tertiary conundrums. The words popped into my head as I was doing dishes this morning. At first they sounded like pure nonsense, interesting only in their sonic qualities, their rhythmic syllables and the contrasting softness of the first word and the hard c and d sounds in the second. And there’s the hint of music in that final syllable – “drums.”

But slowly, as the word pair reverberated back and forth in my mind, and I repeated them aloud, I realized they conjured up an apt image  of my current condition. Mysteries, worries, thoughts and dreams were bobbing about at the periphery of my consciousness, flotsam in an ocean of awareness. Speaking the words aloud and becoming aware of their meaning allowed me to process my own subconscious thoughts.

I’m on summer break from teaching, and my mind naturally wanders more often these days. As Tolkien reminds us, “All who wander are not lost.” In fact, it’s essential that we allow our minds to wander, to follow the call of those seemingly random voices, for they may lead to wonderful discoveries. I hope especially that children have time to wander and play in unstructured and creative ways. Some wordplay ideas: jot down favorite words and pair them in unique combinations, write stories with these words, turn them into characters and plots, and share your creations.