KCEI Cultural Energy Interview with Mike Tilley and Nita Sweeney
One highlight of the New Mexico leg of my book tour for Depression Hates a Moving Target, was this interview with Mike Tilley of KCEI 90.1 FM – Cultural Energy. Not only had he read the book, but he surprised me during the interview by sharing memories of things we had done in common. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
You’ve heard of the “to do” list, but what about the “to write” list? It’s a powerful tool in my writing kit.
Sitting in the classroom at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, I watched as best-selling author Natalie Goldberg picked up her cheap spiral notebook, flipped to the back, and showed us a list of scrawled topics she’d penned on that last page. She said she carried a notebook everywhere and jotted ideas on the back page of the notebook as they occurred to her. “If I’m stuck, I look at these,” she said.
She’d mentioned this list in one of her books, most likely Writing Down the Bones, but to see the real thing left quite an impression. I began to do the same and still carry a notebook at all times.
We also did list-making exercises in the many workshops I took from her. The topics varied, but here are a few of my favorites:
~ The things I carry (a spin-off from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien). ~ Make a list of everyone you’ve ever met ~ Write the names of every place you’ve been ~ Name your pets ~ Tell me every car you’ve ever owned and what happened to it ~ Write down everywhere you have lived ~ List all your loves ~ Tell me everything you know about the color blue
When I write a list, sometimes I’ll fill the entire writing practice with listed, but more often, as I made the list, something would occur to me and I’d soon be writing an essay instead.
Do you use writing lists? I’d love to hear if they work for you!
Today, I spent a fabulous afternoon in the company of writers. Yes, I did most of the talking, but what the people arbitrarily labelled “participants” didn’t know going in was that I needed them more than they needed me.
I teach the “rules of writing practice” as taught to me by best-selling author Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind). In the year 2000, shortly before Ed and I returned to my home state of Ohio after living in Taos, New Mexico where I had studied with Natalie, Nat told me to teach writing practice in Ohio. She knew what I needed.
My lame paraphrasing of Nat’s brilliance goes something like this:
1. Use Timed Intervals . . . just like in meditation practice. Start with ten minutes. Set the microwave timer and GO! The time constraint has a pressure cooker effect, heating up our minds and helping words flow.
2. Keep Your Hand Moving . . . . . . for the entire time period you’ve selected. It separates and your creative momentum from that oppressive internal editor. No stopping. No crossing out. Don’t let that critic have a chance to stop your naturally moving hand. If you don’t know what to write, write the topic again and continue. Something more will arise.
3. Be Specific. Oak, not tree. Teddy bear, not stuffed animal. Capture the essential details of your life.
4. Don’t Worry about Spelling, Punctuation; Grammar. Or even the lines on the Page
5. Go for the Jugular. If it’s scary, it has energy. If you don’t write about it, you’ll just end up writing around it. Even if you know you’ll never publish those words, just go for it!
6. You’re Free to Write the Worst Junk in America (America, Earth, The Milky Way, The Universe). Take the pressure off. We all write junk. If you’re free to write awful nasty stuff, you’ll be free to write hot, lively stuff as well.
7. Lose Control! Don’t try to manage what goes down on the page. Let the wild waves of your mind roam free. Don’t grip the pen too hard. It doesn’t matter how sloppy your writing or your thoughts become. Set yourself free.
8. Don’t Think. Take a vacation from logic, organization, or anything your left-brain loves. Capture the way your mind first flashes on an experience. Step into the words and go. Become the words. No mind. Just write.
The problem? I forget to follow them.
These “rules” have become so ingrained in me that I take them for granted. And I forget to use them. I lose sight of the practice that has kept me going all these years. I still write, of course, but not with the wild abandon and rich freedom offered by these simple rules. My writing turns shallow and my mind dull. I lose touch with my own big heart and crazy wild mind.
So thank you today to the brave “participants” who allowed me to refresh my recollection by teaching. And thank you to Nat (always) for knowing what I needed in order for the practice to continue at my own desk and at the desks of others. As is often the case, we teach what we need to learn.
Recently, a friend asked for my best writing advice. Her question brought me back to all the suggestions I’ve heard since 1994 when I first began my journey away from the practice of law and into the dark unknown of wordsmithing. Like me, she is bipolar.
Perhaps she expected me to talk about craft or motivation. Maybe she thought I would suggest a book or a course or some external structure to help her learn to put words on the page in the proper order. I’ve asked for all that myself and received many fabulous tips.
Instead, I told her, “Take your meds.”
She stared blankly at me so I continued.
“Do not stop. Do not go off them even if you are worried about weight gain or dampened emotions. Do not stop even if you fear they jeopardize your creativity. Take your meds. You cannot write if you’re dead.”
Her eyes opened wide. Yes. I had surprised and perhaps confused her. But she nodded.
I was, of course, remembering the times I’d quit taking the antidepressants and mood stabilizers I’ve been prescribed since 1994, about the same time I left the practice of law. Each time, stopping the meds seemed like a great idea. Even going on meds to begin with was a huge struggle. Why didn’t meditation fix me? Or recovery? Couldn’t I exercise my way into mental health? [That one still creeps into my mind occasionally.]
I specifically recalled three years in Taos when I’d tried to do mental health “the natural way” whatever that means. I tried Sam-E and long walks on the mesa with our two dogs. It wasn’t long before I was suicidal and so filled with anxiety that I could not bear to be alone. I rode with my husband through the Rio Grande Gorge to his evening classes in Santa Fe because I was so afraid of the darkness, most of which was in my mind.
And during each of the times I’d gone off my meds, I could not write at all. And once I went back on meds, it took a very long time to regain what I’d had before. I truly have lost entire years to this folly.
So, I’m not a doctor (but I am a lawyer – CYA alert) and your mileage may vary so please, consult your mental health professionals. Maybe you don’t need meds at all.
But if they have been prescribed, please take them. Please.
As I told my friend. Simply continue and you will find your path, but only if you take your meds.
“First thoughts have tremendous energy. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash.” — Natalie Goldberg
Last week, I asked my Facebook followers what they wanted to see on my page. Some of the answers were things I already do. Writing tips. Writing events. Mental health information. Cute animal memes. Photos of #Scarlet the #ninetyninepercentgooddog.
But one request was so obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. A person suggested writing prompts. Wow! And, yes!
I’ve begun to post a daily writing topic using the hashtags #nitaprompt and #writingpractice and #tenminutesgo. My friend Suzanne came up with #nitaprompt when I said these topics needed a hashtag. Since the real Nita is not always “prompt,” I had to go with that.
The hashtags #writingpractice and #tenminutesgo honor my long-time teacher, best-selling author Natalie Goldberg whose ground breaking book Writing Down the Bones revolutionized the way many people teach writing. Natalie introduced “writing practice” as a way to tap into what she called “wild mind” or the first flash of how we see something. The concept of “first thoughts” came from Natalie’s Zen practice. She offered writing practice as a way to help people free themselves from writer’s block.
In the workshops I attended with her in Taos, New Mexico, we sat on folding chairs in the classroom at Mabel Dodge Luhan House. When it was time to write, Nat called out a topic often as simple as “mashed potatoes” followed by the admonition, “Ten minutes. Go!” We were to each keep our hand moving, pen flowing ink across the page of a spiral notebook, as we jotted down the first images that came to mind from whatever topic she offered. These ten minute timed writing intervals created a pressure cooker effect helping us to drop down into our writing.
Writing prompts still serve as the basis for much of my writing. When the blank page proves too daunting, a topic gives me a jumping off place. I often veer off into some other topic more related to whatever project I’m currently writing, but it gives me a place to begin.
If you’re stuck or bored or need a new place to start, scroll to Facebook or Twitter and type in #nitaprompt. Do with the topics as you wish. Ten minutes. Twenty. An hour. I hope you find them helpful.
And if you have favorite topics, send them my way. I’ll happily offer those to the masses as well.