I just finished running a writing retreat here at my house, affectionately called "Big Yellow" by the marvelous cast of writers who have been coming, practically en masse, since 2005. I love retreats. I love these people, first of all, and I love having them in my house. My kids love them too, and refer to the front room of the house as "the writers's room." They also like that whenever we have a retreat, Tom makes a batch of what he calls "crack brownies" because they are that irresistible. My kids agree. On Friday, we pulled out new candlesticks. We found our favorite Bali blue tablecloth and waved it till it settled on the dining room table. We cooked spiced lentils in butternut squash and made Tom's excellent winter greens soup from the Field Of Greens cookbook. (This soup is like drinking pure health, by the way. Ask, and I will post the recipe.)
Selfishly, I also love the opportunity to write. The method I learned for running writing groups comes from AWA--Amherst Writers and Artists-- and it demands that the leader write along with the attendees to show that the method works. In the past, I have gotten huge chunks of my books written; songs have come to me (most notably "Endless Day") and I have generally left retreats feeling refreshed and inspired.
This weekend, one of the retreatants, Ashley King, sent us all a link to a fantastic TedTalk by Dr. Brene Brown, which thoroughly primed the pump. Dr. Brown spoke movingly and sometimes humorously about her research which involves figuring out why some people have trouble with connection and others don't. It comes down to a quality she calls "wholeheartedness," and what she means by that is something we might more easily recognize as "courage." The word courage has its roots in the Latin "cor" which means "heart." ("Core" is a cognate of this word, and I love that at our core is our heart.) Courage is heartfulness, leading with the heart, with the feelings, with the emotions. In other words, courage is not so much about bravery as it is about vulnerability.
And what is more vulnerable than writing? What is more courageous, for that matter, than writing? What indeed, especially when one has what writers dread more than any affliction, even bad reviews: writer's block.
Rewind a few days. Katryna and I met with our friend Beth Spong for lunch to discuss ways in which the organization for which she is executive director--MotherWoman--and we, the Nields, could join forces. MotherWoman is a fantastic organization that creates support groups for women who have postpartum depression. Actually, their full mission is this:
MotherWoman supports and empowers mothers to create positive personal and social change through: powerful mothers groups, innovative programming to confront the feminist crisis of postpartum depression, and effective political action. Mothers face enormous challenges, including unrealistic expectations, isolation, depression and appalling family policy. By valuing and supporting mothers, everyone benefits.
Yeah. Right on! So up our alley to get behind this! And so we are and we will, but one of the tasks Beth gave me was to write "a song about motherhood which we will videotape and release on Mother's Day. Our aim is for it to go viral."
And I said, "I am up for the challenge! I will start to write it today!"
That was Wednesday.
I poked at the topic. I journaled about my own mother. I wrote a poem.
Then the retreat began. Before my writing pals arrived, I went for a walk, searching for inspiration. The sky was that kind of ice blue that you only see in January. A foreboding sky that you could almost skate on. I got lots of ideas about the song. I could see the video. I could see Katryna and me singing it. I could hear it, in a way. Oh, wait--that was the Ingrid Michaelson song I had on my iPod.
I came back and we all talked about courage, vulnerability and telling the truth about ourselves. The truth is, what keeps us from being courageous is the fear that we are not good enough as we are: that WHO we are isn't good enough, and that if the others could only see what a fraud and excellent faker we are, we'd be kicked out of the nest. This leads to more obfuscation of our true selves and therefore to more disconnection--it's a vicious cycle. But what we find out when we write together and share what we have just written is something quite different: the more truthful we are about our so-called faults--our fears, quirks, addictions--the more easily others can relate to us. While our strengths, our beauty, our kindness, our intelligence, our fashion sense might attract us to each other, all too often, it is our broken parts that connect us to each other. They seal the deal. They help us to bond. (Usually when I bond with someone it's by sharing some deeper part of myself, while the other does the same.) And it is in that connection that we begin to heal, too, or at least to laugh; and laughter is the best healing agent of all.
That was all well and good. Everyone in the group wrote brilliantly, full of courage, full of wisdom, vulnerability, exuberance, grace. Meanwhile, I took my guitar up to my bedroom with my notebooks and MacBook and wrote about seven different completely unsatisfying mother songs. (I am trying not to call them "suckitudinous.") Or at least the beginnings of suckitudinous mother songs. I was like a posterchild for everything I encourage writers not to do. I started something, then my wicked inner critic who had somehow gained access to the process, said, "That is just suckitudinous! Or, maybe it's not so bad, Maybe it's OK. But it could never go viral!" Waiting just outside my door was a parade of all the rejections I have had in my entire life, dressed for Mardi Gras, 8 weeks or so early.
I haven't had WB (writer's block) in about nine years. The last time was after I had finished recording our album Love and China and had no earthly idea where to go next. So I was caught off guard by how truly terrorizing it can be. But this time there was a new twist.
"If you were still on caffeine, you'd get the song," sneered the voice.
Oh, right! Caffeine. And thus began another parade outside my door, this one of all the New York Times articles I have read over the past ten years about how caffeine is great for brain connections, people with ADD (I am certainly a candidate) and overall heightened mental alertness. Oh, how I craved a cup of my strong black tea at that moment! I remembered back in college, my friend Leon Dewan teaching me that whenever he wanted to write a song he brewed himself a huge pot of strong Keemun tea.
What was the point of giving up caffeine if it robbed me of my muse? Was I really going to choose some principal like my health over my mission in life?
The timer went off for the fourth and final session of writing. I had something--probably nothing that would go viral, but something. I packed up my guitar and trudged down the stairs. And because, as I said, the AWA method requires the leader to show up creatively too, I started the sharing session with my bit of song. I figured at the least, I could practice courage. The retreatants were kind and supportive. And I reminded myself that it took me a year to write what is our number one song now on iTunes, the song I got a book deal for, called This Town Is Wrong, and that if it takes me that long to write a great song for mothers, so be it. It might take even longer. But I am not going to give up trying, because I really do have a lot to say.
And I am also not going to pick up caffeine. At least not today.
Instead, I am going to rely on my many WBB's (Writer's Block Busters) that have proved themselves in the past. I would love if you would, in the comments section, post your own WBBs. Here are mine:
1. Let the song go. Keep the spirit alive, but let the body go. Wait for it to come to you. It will. Trust that it will; invite it in. Treat it like a cat. Seduce it at 45 degrees.
2. Listen to lots of music. Notice that many songs you love have not gone viral.
3. Go for lots of walks and runs.
4. Every now and then, remind yourself of a nugget of the song that you like. Hum it.
5. Take lots of naps. Before you take the nap, ask the muse to help you with the song. I often wake up with a tune in my head.
6. Write a different song.