I've mentioned recently that I'm really stepping in to my best writing now that I have a warm up practice. I warm up for about 20 minutes with a writing exercise that has nothing to do with my memoir and it gets those creative juices flowing. Well, I thought I might share an exercise that actually had me giggling.
The idea is to write nonsensical poetry. Choose one word and then a second word that doesn't relate to the first word at all, then a third and so on. This is a free for all exercise. Anything goes. Even made up words. So, I'm sharing my nonsensical poetry with you. It's most fun if you read it out loud in a serious tone as though you are at a poetry slam.
I hope you enjoy.
Forch of madness
Spoon me with sentiment
Smarth to wrench a moldy flippant
Interspecies gold want bul flight
Spleen forever squinch sup fllowt
Botch in sinkin pastry
Is Melrose stiff mbart?
Shister ouch for ply
Screen crease without veins
Blocketed in full morsitz
Sprite six from pants
Borshobble split in drews
I REALLY liked making up words if you can't tell.
Last week I wrote a paper that was included in the Intuitive Interspecies Communication Symposium led by the University of Saskatchewan. I also had the pleasure of speaking with two other communicators during the symposium.
This week-long event was full of brilliant researchers, indigenous elders, and professional animal communicators. I felt incredibly honored to be included - and also like I didn't belong at the table. My mind raced with, "I'm not smart enough, I'm not experienced enough, I don't know what I'm talking about." You know, a whole bunch of lies that in my vulnerable moments I wholeheartedly believe.
One of the main messages I want to get across in my hug memoir is that we are all equal. It was important to me not to discriminate against anyone I asked for a hug. I was as likely to ask for a hug from someone asking for spare change on the corner as I was the CEO of my ex-husband's company at their Christmas party.
When the symposium was over I cried because of all of the wounding that said I wasn't equal to those brilliant people I was seated at the table with. My wounding said that they were wondering why I was there. It said, "why did you even bother reaching out to those people for networking connections? They aren't going to write back." It said, "who do you think you are?"
The Truth is, I can't possibly speak up for the equality of all if I am not including myself.
So, I'm going to keep showing up at these tables even with my shaky voice. I am going to keep practicing owning my place in this world. I am going to keep practicing believing I am equal.
The truth is, we live in a society that doesn't allow everyone at the table. We live in a society that creates laws excluding some people and even criminalizing them.
My looks allow me the privilege of being at almost all tables. I can't let those demons inside my head limit the tables I choose to sit at because how am I supposed to pull up a chair for those that are unequal in the eyes of society and our laws if I'm not already there?
Believing I am equal at a table full of animal communicators may not help me create equality for all, but it's a step toward having the confidence to sit at more tables and I will continue to press against my wounding until I'm sitting at the most powerful tables pulling up chairs for everyone who wants to join me.
One of the biggest challenges I face in writing my memoir is not wanting to hurt anyone. I know, I know, I hear you... "but Melinda, you are writing about hugs - how could you possibly be hurting anyone?"
I am writing about hugs, but I'm also more importantly writing about my experiences throughout my two hug journeys (a year of hugging strangers and a cross country trip relying on the kindness of strangers to give me a place to stay and food). In other words, I'm writing about being human. Being human is beautiful, vulnerable, and messy. So, yeah, I have reservations about what to share and how I share it.
This week was a perfect example. I am rewriting (for like the third time) my experience of staying with a single man in Utah with Tourettes (a condition of the nervous system that causes sudden repeated twitches or outbursts). Our time together was raw and vulnerable for both of us.
There were a lot of vulnerabilities that I didn't share with him though. Questions I had about the appropriateness of staying with him, questions about a potential mutual attraction despite my married status, questions about the lack of spices in the meal he prepared for me (I mean, I'm a believer that salt is a mandatory enhancer of all dishes)
He is such a beautiful, sensitive soul and the last thing I want is to hurt him. What I've come to realize this week as I was rewriting our experience together is that I haven't given him nearly enough credit for all he's endured. Who do I think I am that he couldn't and wouldn't rebound from words that I publicly share? Words that I have so carefully curated in my attempt to give us both dignity and grace.
Also, in complete transparency, it's probably less about wanting to hurt him and more about wanting to control how I am perceived by him and others.
I mean, when it comes down to it, my fear of hurting people's feelings is a bit self-important don't you think? To think that people hold my words with so much weight as to harm their own self-worth? Wow. When I look at it that way I am embarrassed I ever even held that fear.
But, I learned at a very young age to always put others ahead of myself. To not say anything that might hurt another. I have practiced these lessons for so long it's going to take more than recognizing my own self-importance to release them altogether.
So, as with everything else, it's a practice. With each draft I'll write a little more and a little more. I'm nearly certain that by the time my book comes out, it still won't be everything I would've wanted to say, but it will be most of it.
Writing a memoir is the single most humbling thing I have ever done.
What I'm learning is that to write a good book, I needed to learn how to sing. Or more specifically, I needed to learn about my voice.
The latest lesson I took away from my voice coach (Jan Cooper) is that a warm up is a requirement or I could cause damage to my voice. Duh. Same as physical exercise. I would never think of running without warming up my muscles first.
This week I brought that concept to my writing. What if I warmed up before jumping straight in to the meat of my writing? This isn't a foreign concept, I mean, I am sure Maggie (my writing coach) has mentioned it before and I have heard other people talk about writing something fun especially when in writer's block.
All the times I had heard that, I never thought of it as a warm up the same way I view physical warm ups; the same way Jan cautioned that not warming up can cause damage. I mean, it's writing. What kind of damage can be caused by not warming up.
Let me tell you, damage will happen. It has happened to me. Without the warm ups, my emotional and mental bodies aren't prepared. This has led to soul crushing doubts and near breakdowns. It ultimately led to a complete and utter writer's block.
So, this week I approached it differently. Through Maggie's suggestion, I only focused on writings that allowed me to build back any trust I lost (or maybe never had) in myself. I didn't write anything pertaining to my memoir. I practiced writing fun things, non-emotional things, boring things.
Then, I integrated the warm-ups into the practice. I have no idea what a warm-up for writing looks like, so I improvised. I played around with all the different words I could use to describe a river. I practiced writing loving, comforting words to myself.
Each time I allowed myself to warm up, I found myself deeper in my writing than I've been in months, maybe years...consistently. It enabled me to touch tender parts of myself that were behind those blocks. In those writings, I see the shape of my voice coming forward.
Warm-ups y'all. They aren't just for the body.
Recently a friend of mine was talking about her son and how afraid she was for him to grow up in this terrible world. She then proceeded to explain how as much as she loves him, she never wanted kids because she didn't want to have to bring one up in our current environment. She gave examples of the horrors including ones we are all familiar with; 9/11, mass murders of our children, numerous hate crimes, and more.
I turned to her and boldly said, "My heart breaks for those ongoing events, but I disagree that we are raising our children in a terrible environment." She looked at me like I had two heads.
Part of the reason I went on my hug journeys was because I heard so many people who believed like she did, that our world was awful and people were terrible. I didn't even believe it back then, but those very same people told me I needed to live in the 'real world' and I would see how it really was. They thought I was naive and destined for a world of hurt.
So, I went out to discover for myself just how awful people were. Ok, fine, I went out to prove to them that I was right and that people are good, kind, and loving.
Over the course of hugging thousands of strangers and staying with relative strangers across the country with 99% kindness and love to report, I am thrilled to say, "I told them so."
But, the story doesn't end there. The world isn't so black and white. People aren't either good or bad. We are all many shades of gray.
I rage at the thought that anyone is treated less than simply because of who they are or what they believe. My heart burns with fury when our government decides that having access to guns is more important than saving children's lives. My skin crawls when I hear another one of my friends share their story of sexual trauma.
When it comes down to it, I believe that both my friend and I are right. Yes, this is a terrible world to bring a child into - and it's the most magical place full of incredible beauty that our children have the opportunity to behold.
Ultimately I understood I had a choice. I could choose to live in the world that proves to me how awful it is on a daily basis by looking for the crimes, traumas, and injustices (which wouldn't be hard to find) or I could choose to live in the world of magic and beauty by looking for the soft unfolding of a rose bud, the gentle smile of a stranger letting me into traffic, the heartwarming text of a friend that was just thinking about me.
Perhaps it's because I make the conscious choice to look for the good in humanity, but I find that the 99% kindness and love isn't just found on hug journeys, but...everywhere.
Have I told you how frustrating and confusing it is to write a memoir? It's a terrible process that challenges everything I have ever thought about myself. I feel like screaming and giving up all the time.
But, I keep going. Why? That's a question I have to ask myself all the time otherwise I would have given up long ago.
I keep going because I have a very unique story to share that is also everyone's story.
I keep going because I know my story will help others feel less alone and hopefully inspire them to their own greatness.
I keep going because I hope somewhere along the way I find my own greatness.
I keep going because I am learning to be a better writer, storyteller, human.
I keep going because a long time ago I lost my voice and now I'm relearning what it sounds like.
Writing a memoir is not for the faint of heart. I recommend it for everyone.
Recently I started taking singing lessons for my own pleasure - or at least that was the intention. I've wanted to be a singer since I was almost as young as little Cooper up in that picture but I never told anyone. As happens with many of us, I was more or less told I wasn't a good enough singer for the school chorus, much less anything grander. So, over the course of my 47 years, I rarely sang in front of anyone unless the music was too loud for me to be heard, or I was drunk.
I was so terrified before my first singing lesson that I almost cancelled but a good friend recommended the voice coach and raved about the breakthroughs she had in the first 3 lessons. I was determined to have those breakthroughs. I was determined to feel confident to sing in front of my friends and family whenever I felt like it. Maybe even become confident enough to sing at karaoke. Maybe.
What I didn't expect was that by the 2nd lesson I would take his teachings and apply them to my writing.
"Melinda, no one likes to hear themselves sing. Everyone I know thinks they sound awful. The thing is is that they are comparing themselves to other singers. They are wondering why they don't sing like Mariah or Whitney. But, we don't need another Mariah or Whitney. We need more people owning the voice they have and offering that up to the world."
I let out a deep breath when he said that. I appreciated both the validation that I am not alone in not liking my voice and the permission to embrace it anyway.
It took another 24 hours before I realized I was doing the same thing with my writing. I dislike everything I have written so far in my memoir because I'm still wanting to sound like Glennon Doyle, Liz Gilbert, or Cheryl Strayed. Shit. I'm comparing my first drafts of my first books to legendary well-established authors. No wonder I keep getting stuck.
I'm not sure if I'm feeling more hopeful or afraid to return to my memoir writing now. On one hand, I can let go of the comparisons. On the other, what if I still struggle to find my voice?
Ahh, the twists and turns of memoir writing...
Last week I watched a ballet performance at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Two women expressed a spoken poem through their movement. It was a history of the way creatives have spoken about "the muse".
"she is fleeting"
"If I'm driving, I have to pull over and capture her immediately on paper."
"she's like a breeze blowing through me, if I don't harness her, she exits as quickly as she came."
It reminded me of the way Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) talks about inspiration. She describes it as something that doesn't often linger. It comes calling, but if you don't answer, it moves on to someone else.
But, what if it could be different?
What if I demanded something different?
What if I set boundaries with the muse? Is that allowed? Would she still visit? Would she still want to impart her inspiration on me?
If the end of the performance was any indication, I believe, yes.
I can shout to the skies and yell, "No more! Stop visiting me while I'm driving! Stop calling me just before I fall asleep or wake me in the middle of the night." I can demand, "It's not about when it's convenient for you, but when it's convenient for me!"
Of course, it's only when I make those demands that I see what's really happening here.
Oh. That's the only time I'll listen? Oh. That's the only time I can hear you? Oh. That's the only time my brain is settled enough to allow you in?
Maggie (my book coach) talks often about consistent writing habits. I get it now. It's about carving out time to write, yes, but it's also about carving out time that the muse knows I'm listening. It's promising her that I'm willing to receive her inspiration and following through on that promise. It's letting her know she can trust me when I say I want a relationship with her.
Like all relationships, we need to learn and grow together. I'm still afraid I will fail her. Sometimes that fear overwhelms me and I want us to break up.
The thing is, she might leave for a while, but she always comes back. I'd rather it be on my terms, at my desk in front of my computer than in the middle of the night disturbing the sleep I desperately need.
Recently, I struggled falling asleep. My mind was churning around how good it felt to be sick. Let me explain.
I was pretty sick for three weeks. During that time, I was incapable of doing most things except keeping myself, my boys, and my pets alive. I had a reprieve from my daily mind chatter. Without the capability to write, plan, schedule, attend meetings, or anything else I might do to write my book or build my business, I also had nothing to shame myself for.
Which brings me back to not being able to fall asleep. When I finally started feeling better, I was terrified to return to 'real life'. I didn't want my mind chatter to return. It's exhausting. It's constantly reminding me of all I haven't accomplished. It's shaming me for the choices I've made. It's encouraging me to do work that is uninspired. It's trying to convince me I can't do this. I can't write a book, be an entrepreneur, create the life of my dreams. So, as I lay there praying to fall asleep, my mind made one final plea...just go out and get a regular job with security, a guaranteed paycheck, insurance and you know...be responsible.
Fortunately for me, I talk to animals. So, in this time of crisis, I turned to a familiar cheetah to show me the way. Her name is Tabitha. She is tattooed on my arm. If you've read Untamed by Glennon Doyle, then you know her. She was the star of the prologue. She did not know life out of captivity, but still carried the wild streak within her. I resonate with her. I want to live free for her. So I asked her, "what would you do if you were finally freed?" Her answer shocked me.
"I would freak out and probably wouldn't survive."
Then she reminded me of the time I volunteered for a wildlife rehabilitation and the many months or longer required to rehab these injured and sick animals before they were released back into the wild. They were required to graduate through baby steps. First, they were kept in small enclosures to limit movement where their food was delivered directly to them, then they graduated to a larger area where they had more room to move but their food source was still delivered directly to a food bowl, then the food was hidden to ensure the animal could find their food, then they graduated to live food to ensure they could hunt and kill their food. Of course, there may be many other steps or varied steps depending on the animal, but never were they transitioned directly from a small enclosure to the wild. They wouldn't survive.
Why did Tabitha remind me of this? Because for the past few years I have been attempting to skip the baby steps and head directly into the wild. Until a few years ago, I was living the expected life - being a wife, mother, and caretaker of our house and lives. My life was not my own, not because I was forced into that role, but because I believed that it was what was expected of me. My mind is still trapped in the belief systems that kept me in that personal enclosure for many years.
Of course I was terrified to return to 'real life'. I had a taste of personal freedom while I was sick and I didn't know how to maintain that freedom once I returned to writing my book and building my business.
What I now see is that the freedom I have been longing for all along is the freedom from the constraints, judgements and shame-filled bullying of my mind. If I were to jump into that freedom without baby steps, my mind might explode (unless it's ravaged by a fever-filled haze). But, what I can do is take that feeling of freedom I experienced while sick and use it as a compass.
What is the next baby step I could take toward feeling that freedom while I write?
What is the next baby step I could take toward feeling that freedom while I build my business?
Do I need a break?
Do I need to stay on the step I am on until I am ready to graduate to the next right baby step?
This is my journey. There is no rush. I want to graduate through those baby steps so I know I will be prepared for the ultimate freedom - the wild, creative, uninhibited future I long for.
One last nugget of wisdom Tabitha had for me? Enjoy it all. The freedom. The journey toward the freedom and even the enclosure. Joy is mine for the having no matter what stage of the process I am in.
I'm not sure how old I was when I stopped believing that I was enough just the way I was. I am certain the process of overriding my innate worthiness began before I hit double digits. Teachers loved me because I worked hard, followed the rules and got good grades. My friends loved me because I was a good listener and gave good advice. Strangers loved me because I was kind and always smiling.
After almost 40 years of practicing transactional love, it has become a belief that I am only worthy of love based on what I can offer others. Ugh. The belief runs so deep that I don't even understand what it means to be worthy of love just because I am me. That thought breaks my brain. Who am I? How can I trust that? What if I allow myself to believe I am worthy only to lose everything when I embrace my most authentic self and show that self to the world?
My most authentic self does not like to work hard or follow the rules. She is not always a good listener and often gives terrible unsolicited advice. She is angry most of the time and rarely smiles anymore. She is not someone that feels worthy of any love - unconditional or transactional.
I am ashamed to admit that a big part of the reason I hired a book coach and a financial coach was just as much about hiring them to be my friends as it was about wanting to write my book or learn to manage my money better. If I paid them, then they had to show up for me. Transactional.
No wonder I am so angry all the time. I am depriving myself of love. The walls guarding myself against the pain of heartbreak, whether platonic or romantic are thick with lies that I have believed so long, even those that want to love me unconditionally - can't.
My hug journeys were a way of unknowingly chipping at those walls. The year of hugs was my way of sharing that unconditional love with others - to let them know they were worthy of love just by existing in my world. Only, I didn't allow myself to receive it back. No amount of sharing that love with others translated back to feeling like I was worthy of the same.
The cross-country journey was my way of asking the question, "am I worthy of love just because I exist in your world?" Only the answer seemed like such a foreign concept to me I still was unable to embrace the truth. Despite the way I was embraced and truly, unconditionally loved on that trip, I have continued to search for ways since then to prove I was worthy. Including writing my memoir. Initially, I was writing it for them - transactional. The problem with writing it for them means I have to continue conforming to the transactional love which defeats the purpose, is not authentic, and my book is refusing to be written that way.
This memoir is attempting to not only chip away at that thick wall of beliefs but crumble it entirely. It's uncomfortable, confusing, and scary. As much as I want to allow that wall to crumble, it doesn't yet feel safe within my body to do so. With humans anyway.
Fortunately, I have plenty of animals surrounding me that don't know any different who are willing to guide and hold me in that unconditional love as the flimsy foundation of those outdated beliefs wither away. Without a foundation to hold them, there will be no other option than to allow my authentic self to shine free of beliefs that were never mine to begin with.
Melinda Lee is a mom of two adolescent boys, a devout student of all things spiritual, a recovering perfectionist, and immensely fascinated with achieving the unachievable. Currently writing a memoir about hugging strangers.