Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

When I was writing a nutrition book several years ago, I spent a lot of time not writing. I cleaned, napped, drank, anything to avoid what I knew I had to do (and actually really wanted to do!). I thought I was an expert procrastinator until I completed a questionnaire at the end of Robert Boice’s book Professors As Writers, entitled The Blocking Questionnaire. The Blocking Questionnaire is sort of a Myers & Briggs test for your writing personality. Based on your answers to multiple questions regarding overt, cognitive/emotional, and social signs of blocking (as in writer’s block), you are scored in several areas, including work apprehension, procrastination, writing apprehension, dysphoria, impatience, perfectionism, and rules. While all of these things are likely to affect writers to some degree, typically one quality predominates.

Based on my results, I found that what I thought of as procrastination was firmly rooted in perfectionism. I was finally able to complete my book once I heeded Boice’s advice: “perfectionists learn to laugh at their perfectionism and to put it in its proper place – toward the end of the writing process. They do so, at least in the short run, by confronting their internal critic and by writing around him or her.”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post called Practicing Imperfection. At that time, I had reached a tipping point regarding the unrealistic standards I hold myself to. In drafting my declaration of imperfection, I seem to have touched a nerve, with myself and several others. And, as often happens with me, it wasn’t until after I had written it that I realized just how true, important, and poignant this issue is.

I find that much of my internal monologue is about perfection, how I should be able to achieve it, yet how incapable I am of it. Case in point: for the past several years I have dreamed of writing a book about my experiences quitting drinking, beginning meditation, and learning to lean into my real (though messy, unpredictable, and often uncomfortable) life. While I have every logical reason to believe I am capable of this (past book writing experience, basic ability to string together sentences, an encouraging and supportive network), I have delayed the actual writing of the book.

My inner perfectionist doesn’t think it’s worth writing if it’s not a best-seller, if it doesn’t land of me on the present day equivalent of the Oprah Winfrey show, and if basically everyone doesn’t love me for writing it. Again, I spend much of my time and energy not writing this book. Instead, I do research so that I won’t omit any important information when I do finally commit to writing, I play with shifting the focus of the book proposal this way and that, and I furtively scan recently published book titles assuming one day I’ll find someone has beat me to it.

Who could live with these expectations? I would never place such pressure on someone I love…isn’t that a mouthful? While I can’t say that I will no longer be a perfectionist, I am committing to making imperfection a practice, much like meditation. What this leads to remains to be seen.

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“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” ~Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche


It’s been two months since my job ended. Since then I have tried to bring the structure of my working life into the vast abyss of my unemployment. Somehow I fill my days with errands and small tasks that must have gone uncompleted when I was working. That and I watch a lot of bad TV. I’ve become mildly obsessed with doing everything right – working out 5 times a week, cooking a variety of nutritious meals, using up all the produce in the fridge before it goes bad, getting the best price on bananas. At the end of the day I’m often not sure what happened. But I feel exhausted.

By filling in the time, I haven’t really been dealing with the fact that I’m confused and uncertain and scared. I guess I have felt this way for much of my life. Like a lot of people, I want to understand the meaning of life, the meaning of my life. To find a way to live that makes me relatively happy and also makes the world a little better when I leave it. I have tried on different personas to see how they fit. One of those personas involved drinking – the wine-savvy dietitian, the friend who was always ready for a cocktail. Before I quit drinking more than 5 years ago, it seemed that alcohol had become so intertwined with my very personality, I wasn’t sure what would remain in its absence. As it turned out, that wasn’t who I was at all.

Since then, and especially since I began to practice meditation, the question of who I am has become all the more poignant, scary, and unclear. As I unraveled the layers of behaviors and habits, there seemed to be less and less there. And yet I have felt more and more myself.

The other day I was standing on the corner of 60th and Lex waiting to go down into the subway. It was raining and I was on the phone with my meditation instructor, who was telling me not to be afraid of my confusion and lack of ground. As often happens when I hear something that feels purely true, I had tears in my eyes.

During the next few days, I realized that the things I’ve done in my life that have felt the most important – falling in love, working on myself in therapy, rebuilding a once-shaky relationship with my parents, quitting drinking, even writing this blog – I’ve done from a place of utter vulnerability. In each instance, I felt I had bottomed out, in a good way. That I was out of rationalizations, that I could only listen to my heart, take a risk, drop expectations, and see what came of it. I never knew how these things would turn out. It’s only in retrospect that each feels momentous.

So perhaps my confusion now is not something to shake or beat into submission. Perhaps, if I allow myself to feel its full weight, its bottomless-seeming depth, it will allow me to see what I need to see.



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For the last week, I have been participating in Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project 7-day at-home retreat (if you haven’t already joined the Open Heart Project, what a wonderful day to do so!). Each day, there have been practices, prompts, and contemplations. Today’s – the final one – was to bring the notion of starting fresh to each moment of the day.

Naturally, 1/1/2013 seems a perfect day to start fresh. Just breaking out the new calendar allows us wipe the proverbial slate clean, to begin again.

Beginning again this year has special significance for me. I was laid off from my job as of the last day of 2012 and now have the opportunity (and challenge) to determine what I really want to be when I grow up. Having taken that left turn at Albuquerque several years ago that led me deeper into medical writing beefed up my resume for sure, but also let some of my deeper passions whither – helping people, nutrition, cooking, and teaching.

Given the time I so longed for to contemplate my new direction, now I must ask myself some very difficult questions:

How do I want to feel about my career?

What unique talents do I have to share?

Can these things support me financially?

Even though I have relished the chance to take on this challenge, I’m scared – of failure, of mediocrity, of making the wrong decisions, of doing something marginal, self-indulgent, or unimportant. Some days I’m full of ideas of how I could cobble together a life replete with work that would benefit others as well as myself; other days I mentally curl into a ball and can’t consider the uncertainty that awaits me.

I nearly got a different full-time position that most certainly could have been considered “perfect” for me. However seductive it was to ride this roller coaster, it would have been someone else’s, and essentially I would have failed (or at least delayed the chance) to risk creating my own path where there is currently only wilderness.

As I contemplate starting fresh in this moment and onward, I am acutely aware of how much support I receive from my meditation practice. With each breath I remember my own basic goodness; a willingness to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty, impermanence, and groundlessness; compassion for all sentient beings; and a desire to be of benefit.

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I love horror movies. They weren’t allowed in my house when I was young so I used to sneak down the block to a neighbor’s house to watch The Exorcist, The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween. As my autonomy increased, so too did the number of horror movies I watched: Saw, Hostel, The Ring, The Grudge, Blair Witch Project, Three Extremes, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Insidious, Sinister, Paranormal Activity 1-19, American Horror Story (thank you Ms. Lange)…too many to count.

It is difficult to explain my affinity for sitting in a dark movie theater while the tension builds until I literally jump out of my seat. I adore the tingling sensation of not knowing what’s lurking around the corner or just beyond the limits of the movie screen. The commentator inside me exclaims No! Don’t go in there! Why don’t you turn on a light, goddammit? Don’t drop the knife and fall into a sobbing heap…He’s not dead! While an even deeper voice purrs Yeah, oh yeah, I love it! Ironically the things that make for the best horror movies – tension, suspense, uncertainty – are some of the most difficult things about real life.

Another thing I willingly engage in that strikes fear in my heart is writing. Literally the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word WRITE is fear. What if it’s no good? What if I’m no good? What if no one reads it? What if everyone reads it? What if the words don’t come? What if I get it wrong? What if someone somewhere has already said this? What if this is my only good idea?

My fear creates a vicious, but predictable cycle. It drives me away from my writing for weeks at a time until I gradually convince myself to engage with it again. But as I find a groove and start to get excited, the above soundtrack emerges and I am driven away again. I might consider this just one more of life’s struggles to be addressed over time if I didn’t feel some urgency to write a Drinking to Distraction book in the next year.

Which is why I presented my dilemma to my most brilliant and wonderful meditation instructor, Susan Piver, who said the following: The only problem with fear and doubt is that you believe them, but in reality they are only distractions. She also suggested working with fear directly, making it the object of my meditation, my companion. And, she told me to write about it!

In Shambhala Buddhism, we talk about fear a lot, specifically becoming a warrior and being fearless. But this doesn’t necessarily mean eradicating or ignoring fear. Chogyam Trungpa describes true fearlessness as “going beyond fear” to find the sadness beneath. And he says that a willingness to feel the feelings beneath the fear is the first sign of real warriorship.

As part of trying to live a life of warriorship, I am engaging with my writing fears gently. I practice writing like I practice meditation, in short, regular sessions, without too many expectations, and with a general faith in the process. I know that there will be good days and bad and that the best I can do is my best. Perhaps eventually I will learn to regard my writing fear as I regard Freddy, Jason, and Michael Meyers, entertaining characters that just can’t stand up to reality (and basic goodness).

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Leaning against one of the bookshelves at the Strand this past Sunday, I reread Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  This simple and somewhat confusing story has always been, for me, a reminder of how difficult it is to capture love in words. What is love? What isn’t? Who has it, and who doesn’t? Perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to love and to be loved? In the story itself, the concept of love only becomes more elusive as the characters try to grasp it through their dialog. Ironically, from my standpoint, this conversation becomes further muddled by the copious amounts of gin consumed.

The truth is, I feel similarly when I try to talk about alcoholism. Who is an alcoholic? Who isn’t? What’s acceptable behavior and what is not? What’s the “right” way to get (and stay) sober?

These questions have been running through my mind especially since the death of Whitney Houston. Interviews with friends, family, and addictions specialists revealed some wildly divergent views of alcoholism and addiction. Many of Whitney’s friends remarked about how happy and relaxed she seemed that night, dancing and drinking champagne. I imagine her friends were relieved to see her finally having fun and drinking “normally.” The addictions specialists pointed out that Whitney could not and would never have been able to enjoy champagne normally, and that what her friends were witnessing was someone actively relapsing and spiraling out of control.

Then there was Whitney herself. Though it’s hard to discern the truth from the dozens of stories written about the days leading up to her death, one exceptionally sad story said she called her mom the night before she died to say that she had every intention of re-entering rehab, but that she wanted to enjoy herself one last night.

For many onlookers, it seemed obvious that Whitney Houston had a severe addiction that could only be treated with rehab, abstinence, and a daily commitment to sobriety. For some, this may in fact be the only reasonable approach. But I wonder, with so many people dealing with alcoholism and addictions of many shades, grades, and natures, might there be a range of “right” responses. And that the true challenge is finding the right one for the individual.

Through this blog, I’ve shared my own struggle with alcohol. I’ve pondered whether or not I am an alcoholic and whether that matters. I chose not to attend AA as part of my sobriety and instead went solo for several years before finding meditation, which I feel finally helped me look at the reasons I drank. This is part of the approach that has worked for me.

Yet, I’ve found that some others who quit drinking have pretty strong opinions regarding my sobriety. While most of the comments I receive on blog posts and other articles I’ve published are very supportive, several have meant to re-educate me. My favorite:

Four things that will kill me—rationalization, justification, denial and blame—your article describes what alcoholics do to deny alcoholism—if you look like a duck, smell like a duck, and quack like a duck, you’re probably a duck.

Um, OK. Quack? Still not sure.

The other part of what has worked for my sobriety is this blog. Writing about my experience–just putting it out there–has been essential to my staying sober and practicing meditation. Whether the approach to sobriety is AA, meditation, writing, exercise, prayer, or something else, I do feel that opening up the conversation allows individuals to gain insight into their own issues and de-stigmatizes what is still viewed by some as a character flaw or a failure to moderate. So I guess it matters less what we talk about when we talk about alcoholism (and addiction), so long as we’re talking.

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