Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Writing Coach Who Saved My Life

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. —Edith Wharton

It is just past eight in the evening, the remaining light has long vanished from the winter sky. There is a bright star, not so distant in the cosmos, surely Venus, appearing through a layer of hazy clouds. It is a beacon to many, a point of reference, a companion to weary travelers.

I am seated at my desk despite the hour, sipping a Cosmo, contemplating writing. It is a good space to be in—musing how satisfying it is to be a writer, sating a hunger for creative expression.

It hasn’t always been so feel good. For a long time I was in a state of hair-pulling frustration, everything inside me was tied up in knots. Creativity had flatlined.

I was without a beacon.

The writing bug bit me in the recession of ’08 and I couldn’t stop scratching. I had lost a high paying job in project management, loved to create and build spreadsheets, layout the hierarchy of steps to get tangible results. Writing, I figured, involved a lot of building. Block upon block, weaving together pieces of time. It appealed to me and I wanted to build something big, a memoir.

Filled with lusty writerness, I chased after it. Headlong. For 3½ years, I lived and breathed in a writing vacuum, vomiting material onto the page. My initial affirmations, like the treasure map in which I drew to envision my writing goals, yellowed. Fervent pleas to the universe, “help me become a good writer,” faded from my subconscious. I got lost, exhausted, overwhelmed. My manuscript grew far from being a labor of love; it became a labor of labor. It began to kill me—I loved to write, hated to write, wanted to quit, couldn’t let it go.

Being a writer was like being in a bad co-dependent relationship.

A little voice inside my head said, Find a community. Writers with whom to commiserate. Get some validation.

I joined an online group of novice writers facilitated by a published memoirist to showcase my awesome material. We submitted work to be read by one another, held a half hour group discussion once a week to share our feedback.

lisa mystic blueThe comments I received from the writers went along the lines of “I love the font you use for your chapter titles” and “great idea using asterisks to break up time sequences.”

The published memoirist, a victim of child abuse and neglect, sympathized with the debacles I depicted which in no way compared to her own and in doing so, voiced little critique concerning my writing.

I moved on.

For whatever reason, I had trouble finding a group in the Boston area and ended up connecting on Facebook with a woman named Susan from Sisters in Crime, a national organization that provides networking, mentoring and support to mystery writers.

I was desperate, you see.

Over a luncheon in Portland, Maine with a dozen-plus published Sister and Crime writers, Susan, wearing a floral-patterned dress and bonnet, bridged the gap between yours truly and the others. She said, “This is Lisa. We’re going to convert her from memoirist to mystery writer.”

Say, what?

I sported an uneasy smile.

pulled pork sammichHalfway through the meal, a hugely rotund very published author (I realize my excessive use of adjectives here) sat down across from me. She addressed the group with details of her latest novel with a pulled pork sandwich engrossed in her mouth. She chirped away as gobs of barbeque sauce painted her cheeks tawny and dripped down her front. The napkin she placed there had long wafted to the floor.

Much later that afternoon, before hitting the prompt to de-friend Susan, I messaged her. I said, “Thanks for the invite to lunch. I’m sticking with memoir writing. Good luck, ‘sister.’”

Bankrupt and broke and sans community, I still needed to be a writer.

The little voice inside my head spoke again. It said, Find a writing coach. Learn about craft.

Come to find out there are thousands of coaches out there. They’re like doctors and lawyers. Some are competent, some are lousy. Some are even soul crushers. I dropped coins in wishing well after wishing well. I wanted a coach who got me, got writing, could give me guidance.

Turns out my hand plucked coaches in one way or another validated my invalidation.

One crunched food in my ear over the phone while reviewing my work. Another quoted me a price equivalent to my former mortgage promising her hifalutin efforts would yield “the greatest possible outcome.” The next one, to whom Dennis paid a chunk of dough upfront, never got around to reading my manuscript. Another, who reacted to my greeting of woe “I’m dying” with raucous laughter, let the editorial backslaps rip: “Let’s be more overt here” and “this feels like it’s come to out of nowhere” and “this paragraph is incredibly vague.”

Call me oversensitive but I’m thinking the last comment didn’t need the punch of “incredibly” and I could have pursued the appropriate action with “this paragraph is vague.”

Making edits, it dawned on me, does not teach a writer about craft.

I returned to being untethered.

The writing got harder.

Like squeezing blood from a stone.

Writer’s block set in.

Eventually, I did the only thing I could do.

I got spiritual.

reiki purpleReiki, I’d heard, could open channels, and maybe even cure writer’s block.

Research for a Master Teacher brought me to Libby Barnett’s home, renowned Reiki author who has been practicing Reiki for over 34 years.

We introduced ourselves, her living room packed with Reiki practitioner wannabes, the energy vibrant and uplifting.

You could say I dampened the mood. I said, “Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a memoir writer; been writing for 5 years, risked and lost everything, and just hit a debilitating block. I’m dying.”

Libby happened to light up at my eloquent soliloquy.

“Oh,” she replied, “are you looking for an editor?” She turned to the windowsill, produced Kasey Matthew’s memoir Preemie.

Suzanne

Suzanne

“Suzanne Kingsbury is a Reiki student of mine. She can help you―she helped this New Hampshire woman write this memoir that’s now stocked in every Barnes and Noble store in the country.”

Hold the presses.

I heard: New Hampshire housewife, never written a word in her life, every bookstore on earth, NPR interviews, speaking engagements, meet-and-greets, validation, sustenance, success.

This Suzanne had moved a mountain.

My awareness returned to the room. I breathed again, accepted the book Libby was handing me. “Suzanne’s contact information is here,” she said, taking it back to open the front cover.

My affirmations, treasure map of writing goals and fervent “help me become a good writer” pleas, had been shifting molecules in the universe since I put pen to paper.

And, the writer’s block was not an obstacle, but a catalyst.

That evening, I emailed Suzanne informing her that the cosmos had connected us and if she would consider―as a fellow Reiki person―helping me write and get published so I could go on NPR and share my story of debacles and ultimately, earn enough dough to resume paying down my futile MBA loans, buy the dog’s food, and flip the bill for my own hair color.

Suzanne called me the following morning.

She asked for a copy of my 300,000-word manuscript, a body of work spanning birth to present that I had loved, hated, laughed and wept over. I mailed it to her in hard copy; nearly broke my arm carrying it to the post office.

Differing from one of those other “coaches,” she did not get back to me when the light from the most distant galaxy reached the earth, but committed to completing the read within a week’s time.

Which she did.

We arranged to meet at Panera. I had my hair done, coaxed a stylist in an upscale salon to throw in a cut for the price of a shampoo and blow dry on the premise that I was “dying.” Suzanne, on the other hand, did not have her hair shampooed and blown dry. She wore it long and natural, donned subtle makeup, a radiant smile, and a cheerful sundress. Very cute. When I spotted her, I held her massive literary hit The Summer that Fletcher Greel Loved Me up over my face. I figured she’d catch on since she had no idea what I looked like.

She did; she laughed.

I lowered the book.

She found me heavily made up, dressed in a leopard-print top, wheat-colored slacks and high heel Mary Janes.

Okay, whatever.

Over my manuscript, which turned out to be an unabridged mass of skeletal ramblings, Suzanne cited her favorite funny parts, most of which I couldn’t make out because she was laughing so hard and making strained sucking sounds.

(Incidentally, the woman who took Dennis’s chunk of dough upfront but produced nothing, told me she would be the judge of what “funny” was―apparently, she has a particular standard for “funny.”)

After getting some black bean soup into her belly, Suzanne got down to the nitty gritty. She advised me to write on a particular year or a season of doom, not my whole life history. That works only for celebrities and important people. She also noted, repeatedly, to write “in the body,” and pick up copies of Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and Euland’s “If You Want to Write.”

And so our relationship started, the fruition. Suzanne has nurtured me; taught me her craft through her own “Gateless Writing Method,” gently nudged me in firm directions. She is my shining star, my coach, my mentor—my shrink. She is one of those rare people you meet who really knows what they’re doing but instead of having a big head due to much success, she’s a fun and giggly and a down-to-earth person. Which makes for a great writing coach.

Know what else comes with Suzanne? The Gateless Gate Salonistas writing community! Scores and scores of her writing peeps and book lovers. There is so much damn love and inspiration and support, its death defying.

Because of Suzanne and the Salonistas, I am no longer dying. And whenever some of those old frustrations resurface, Suzanne tells me, “Keep going.”

Are you a struggling writer? Had your soul crushed by a nasty editor? Left writing conferences discouraged and in tears vowing to never write again?

Start anew and hook up with us, the Gateless Gate Salonistas on Facebook. We’ve got the novice, the seasoned and the “very” published. Men and women of all ages. Retreats, weekly writing salons. Best of all you’ll receive Suzanne’s morning affirmation; it’s a robust shot of encouragement and inspiration every single day.

Don’t give up, writer. Keep going. Have faith in your abilities, shake up the universe with your wishes and realize if you really work at it and let the words flow freely, your craft will improve. The writing process is magical in that way.

Suzanne Kingsbury can be reached through her website.

lisa pink martini

Lisa Mae DeMasi is a freelance writer who writes on women’s issues, creativity and the family. She is a contributor to HuffPost, Elephant Journal and her personal blog, Nurture is my Nature. Her work on the creative process has been shortlisted for the Tucson Festival of the Book Literary Award and can be viewed at Shark Reef Literary Journal. When she isn’t writing, Lisa is a Reiki practitioner who specializes in unblocking creatives in all mediums and moving them (with humor and love) to the highest vision of themselves as artists.  

 

Warm Bodies

warm bodies

To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else. —Emily Dickinson

I am looking at Sabrina. Her head is out the window and the air is moving beneath her floppy ears, lifting them making her seem capable of flight. She makes my heart feel lighter, her being so free, finding joy in simple things.

Pine trees on opposing sides of the road pan by, then a grand estate. “Poles Apart” by Pink Floyd is filling the car, a song sung by Gilmore with his faithful guitar advancing me to the next moment. I can see his fingers strumming each chord.

Hours earlier, I had worried about the temperature. Worried about the state of the ground, if I could dig into the soil.

For soil, the ground, is a final resting place.

The last 3 weeks, I have not rested. I have watched one of my animal companions struggle, losing the ability to groom herself and topple over as she attempted to do so; seen her body become emaciated. I knew the day was coming—when it was up to me to play God and snuff her remaining life out. It has eaten away at me, causing me to have dreams, images of the decay inside out. “She,” “Pickle,” is a favorite; rides atop my shoulder as I do chores around the house, a pet rat that shows me affection like any dog or cat might.

I had arrived at the vet, checked in and sat down on a bench. The place was busy, chaotic. Sabrina put her head on my knee, a gesture that suggested, I’m here for you, Mama. Cradling Pickle I envisioned golden light around her, tried to help myself by taking deep breathes into my belly, blink away the tears.

The cat and dog people around me began asking what I was holding. A rat, I whispered repeatedly, knowing the fact would bring a wriggle of a nose, a grimace, a sound of disgust. Certainly not a clutching of the heart.

These are so-called “animal lovers.”

A vet tech approached me, hadn’t known what I was there for, the girl answering the phone who made the appointment for Pickle’s euthanasia was busy chatting with a friend on the line about shoes. I wanted to punch her, her chubby cheeks, sink my fist into the package of MalloMars beside her. Tell her how damned insensitive she was being. But the vet tech got in the way of my getting even, asked me to follow her to an exam room.

Down the hall and to the right. I set the carrier down on the metallic table, slipped Pickle inside and beside Cupid, another rat who’s health had rapidly declined, then made for the reception area. What’s wrong? the tech said, it’s just a routine exam?

I made my mouth into a straight line, told her the vet’s putting them to sleep and I’d like to leave with the bodies.

Saying “I’d like to leave with the bodies” brought my euthanasia experience to a very down-to-earth experience. I usually don’t have to articulate the words, just check off my preference on some consent form.

I’d like to leave with the bodies.

The vet had been kind; engaged in a sort of conference with me as I waited in the reception area snorting air through my filled nose, tears streaming down my face. He told me I did the right thing, the rats were old and feeble, that I was a good rat mom.

A voice in my head said, dear ratties, do you think I’m a good rat mom? 

Chubby-cheeks cupped the receiver with her hand as I was leaving. She told me she was sorry for my loss. I looked at her long and hard and in a very un-Reiki moment considered telling her to take her MalloMar and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

The door closed behind me.

I climbed down the steps to the car; could see there was a blue towel folded into the carrier that I hadn’t brought. My animals, the ones that had life moving through them just twenty minutes ago were in there albeit still, lifeless, their little spirits gone someplace else.

Now, to “the rez”—our own dwelling offers no haven—with the dog, the bodies, my hand shovel and paper towels.

The soil that I had worried about was soft beneath the snow. I found a remote spot with a tree upended, dug a hole, and wrapped up their bodies which were so warm it left me feeling strange, wrong even. A couple of women walked by— without dogs—strange for the rez, an afternoon stroll. Thinking I looked conspicuous amid the bare trees, I ducked further down behind fallen limbs, my heart afright; figuring I’d be fined if caught for burying warm rat bodies in the ground at the Weston Reservoir.

Affluent women leave warm bodies at the vet; pay for cremation.

The women strolled on, seemingly without a care in the world, nothing to report.

I finished my business dragging heavy limbs over the grave and Sabrina followed me back out to the car. The carrier was still in the backseat, its door askew with the folded towel half in and half out of it. This was the towel that Dr. Hallisey had so caringly wrapped around their warm bodies, insulating them.

Now they were in the ground growing cold.

I wondered. Had I been brave? A renegade? Or strictly after mercy and doing what those animals deserved—to be returned to the earth, part of nature’s procession?

As I question myself, come to support my decision, I look to Sabrina. She seems to understand about death, the soil, the final resting place. Animals do.

And her companionship and light-hearted spirit, just like Pickle’s, took the chill right out of my heart.

Rats Pickle and her mate Marshmallow tucked into the folds of my sweatshirt.

Pickle and her mate Marshmallow tucked into the folds of my sweatshirt.


Lisa and Miki and Pearl IILisa Mae DeMasi
lives in Natick, Massachusetts with her boyfriend Dennis and a fluctuating number of animal companions–some live with them full time, some are fostered, some board. This animal husbandry is a compulsion, saving just one more neglected cute and furry creature warms her heart. Dennis loves them too; the landlord is exceedingly tolerant. Her mother thinks she’s nuts. Lisa is also a blogger and avid writer, her work has been published in Shark Reef Literary Magazine and Elephant Journal. She considers Massachusetts her home, but has lived in Connecticut, Vermont, New York State and two other planets called Wyoming and Arizona. She earned a B.A. from Regis College and an MBA from Babson College, and possesses over 25 years working in administrative support roles in small Boston consultancies. She also holds a Master certificate in Reiki and practice this form of holistic healing on the animals in which she cares for.

 

Circle of Life (She Mother, Me Daughter)

lisa mystic cropped“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” ―Lewis Carroll

The room closed in. The air got thick, dense; tension seeped into my pores. I grew smaller in stature, shrunk right there in my chair before her as if I was Alice and had just choked down a little red pill.

The topic is forthcoming, typical of family gatherings, a line of discussion of an inquisitive nature. It is terribly humiliating this line, disintegrating the little validation I feel about myself and certainly paving the way to pulverizing any validation I someday hope to feel.

She is triumphantly sitting across from me in my brother’s parlor, her hands folded over her swollen belly on this Christmas Day. My hands are not folded over my own swollen belly; my ever-shrinking Alice fingers are fumbling about, trying to maintain a grip on my ever-growing glass of sherry. I wallow in thought. It’s a terrible thing to be shrinking, I muse, and try to convey to her with an expression of pity that I’d like her to cut this sort of thing out, hand me the blue pill, return my body back to its normal inadequacy. She picks up on my expression. It doesn’t stop her. Her eyes, piercingly blue, are boring into my forehead mining my mind for the reasoning that prolongs the ongoing predicament, the matter that most likely sears her brain daily upon waking.

Words penetrate the thickness. They loom before me, big and fat and dripping with turkey gravy. She says, “Are you ready to get back into the circle of life yet?”

Here we go. I resist rolling my eyes, suck in my breath, feel the pressure against my insides. Time slows to a crawl. My lungs deflate, a slow leak like a bum tire, I maintain my front—an uneasy smile—thinking I have never departed from the circle of life. I am here, albeit dwindling to mere molecules in my chair—she, mother; me, daughter—amid a festive family holiday. In my book, that constitutes part of the arc in said circle.

In an inner voice in sync with my current stature and best depicted as first taking a hit from a balloon filled with helium, I hear: That’s not what she means.

I laugh to myself, ‘girl interrupted,’ entertained. Say something else.

She’s not referring to procreating or dying or “eat or be eaten” or even the arc of the circle as you put it. She means circulation, as in “are you ready to get back into circulation yet?”

Oh, yeah, ‘girl reactivated,’ the topic—the one that translates to getting a paying job versus my continuing to “run away from reality” with my so-called “writing interests.” Four years, I suppose from her perspective, is a long time for her daughter “to run away from reality,” a novel pursuit which thus far has yielded fruit the size of a watermeal. Four years, however, she has failed to realize that I’ve poured my heart, soul and angst into a self-proposed commitment and accordingly, sought out Reiki to induce some self-love since I am, especially when engaged in writing, constantly and colorfully harassed and torn to shreds by my inner critic.

Needless to say, my mother is my outer critic.

In the peace of the lovely colonial room, Dennis sits in a chair to my left, my father beside my mother. My brother is off in the kitchen cutting the cheese. The question relating to the humiliating fruitless topic that my mother could not resist in asking one moment longer, particularly in light of the New Year—making resolutions, picking up the pieces and starting anew, and so forth—remains there, unaddressed, splattering the coffee table with fowl juice, tainting the sherry, the nibbles; extinguishing the flickering light of the assorted votive candles. The “circle of life,” the subject, deflates the holiday mood—it falls flat. I gaze back at her with a hint of incredulousness as if to say, why can’t you support my endeavor, can’t you just be a nice mother.

She, of course, does not pick up on this, she has never picked up on the particular line the countless amounts of times I’ve attempted to impress it upon her, why would I expect anything different this Christmas Day. Despite it, the hard-pressed issue, I don’t defer to Dennis for his unwavering sympathy, support or opinion; I keep the subject between my mother and me, leaving the possibility and proper space to hash it out so-to-speak.

The hashing it out, a confrontation of sorts, the candid discussion does not happen. That’s because any real invitation to speak candidly, openly, ends up shunned upon. There’s no getting around it. She moves the subject right along and puts the question in a more specific form. She says, “What kind of job will you look for?”

My expression sours, the refrain in which Elton John sings “in the cir-cle, the cir-cle of life” begins to repeat in my head. The core of me begs to rise up, shows itself looking inside-out—the scorched and glistening spongy tissue springs from my throat and slops to the floor next to the coffee table. I stare at it, the battered evidence, my guts, and choose to defend myself, something I haven’t dared to do since I was a teenager. Deadpan, that is void of the four-year compounded emotion relating to my writing efforts best described as trying to squeeze blood from a stone intermittently overcome with a great effin’ high, I assert into the space some distance over my scorched and glistening core, my guts, “I’d like to become a successful writer.”

My mother’s expression remains unmoved, quite serious and probing. I keep my vision clear of Dennis keeping the perimeter clear for fire, the hopeful confrontation, the once-in-a-lifetime candid discussion. Dad, who shakes himself out of dozing at the subject matter, pushes his glasses further up on his nose. He interjects, “There are lots of teaching jobs out there, you could be a teacher. All my retired engineer friends teach. You could teach middle or high school.”

But Dad. I don’t want to be a teacher.

Not quite at my advantage, my mother’s ears fall deaf on the suggestion. Conversation flatlines. I focus on the flame of a burning candle situated in the middle of a marble-topped mahogany end table between my father and mother, cross my eyes silly. My forehead cramps; the funky play on light and objects brings me into a world of my own, prompts ironic clarity. Helium inner voice comes on the wind again. She is from a different time and playing field; knows not what it means, what drives and feeds your magnetism for risk, leaving the known for the unknown. The voice becomes stronger, sloughs off the high pitch. She is the catalyst to your creative expression, you see, the thing that sates you, your subversive writing.

Anew: I am rebel with a cause, confident, triumphant even, in my own right.

My scorched and glistening guts slither up the couch and climb back down my throat to its rightful place. In a trancelike state I say, “Wait till my manuscript hits the big screen.”

My parents are stunned, wide-eyed; I can make out their expressions in my periphery.

And nothing more is said on the matter.