The Hardest Part of Writing a Memoir: The Truth

truthToday I’m posting a guest blog by none other than Scot Bolsinger, to whom I introduced you two posts ago when I committed to writing 1000 words a day for 90 days, an idea he inspired. Since joining his writers group, Scot and I have done a lot of back and forth by email. We share ideas and our philosophies of life, he metaphorically kicks my lazy writer ass, I get to kick his yoga butt, and we talk about surfing and how he needs to do it more and I less to concentrate more on writing. If you’ve checked out his website (if not, what’s stopping you!!), you will have noticed that Scot wears a lot of hats. And as I’ve mentioned before, it is in his role as editor, that he’s been invaluable to my writing process. The memoir I’m working on is challenging. It’s a lot like rolling over and showing my soft underbelly to a sharp-fanged, claw-swinging dragon. I’m scared shitless of what “you out there” might think of the approach I’ve decided to take. Yes, it’s about intimate relationships and yes, there’s a lot of S.E.X involved. While I’m still not ready to share a lot of details (in part because I haven’t even finished the first draft), I’m very interested in talking about the emotions and challenges one faces while writing a book of this nature. First off, I often wonder if I’m not being a total narcissist. But then I decide that the very fact that I worry about it probably means I’m not. And then I get anxious that I’ll be disowned by family and friends. Will they still love me if I hold up all my warts, psychological scabs, and zits to public scrutiny? But I have chosen to write this particular version of “my story” because I know I’m not alone in this world in having made the kinds of mistakes I’ve made and because it’s the most honest, most revealing (dare I say vulnerable?) version I can tell.

In a recent email exchange the notion of where I reside along the monogamy – polyamory continuum came up. Yeah, we were actually trying to dissect “Who I am” where relationships are concerned. Heavy stuff. I was so impressed by one of the things Scot wrote, I printed it out and hung it in front of where I sit to write. I then asked him to write a guest blog for this site because of the profundity of what he wrote AND because everything I’ve ever read of his has made me laugh and think. That, my friends, in long because I know not the short, is how the following blog post was born.

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I met a bank robber once. Not the run-up-to-a-teller-and-demand-a-drawer-full-of-money robber, but a stake-the-place-out-and-pull-off-the-mission-impossible-vault-break-in-kind of robber.

Dude had brass ones and obvious intellect to boot.

For years and years he swore he was innocent of the crime that earned him two decades in prison. We got to know each other because he wanted me to write a book about how he was innocent. We talked at length. I heard all the arguments. It would be a great book, I told him. But I had a condition.

“You have to tell the truth,” I said. “I won’t write fiction and pretend it’s real.”

He stared at me.

“I think the title should be Guilty Enough,” I said, which also told him I didn’t believe he was innocent.

He then told the truth, perhaps for the very first time.

The reason he held on to his fiction for so long is he knew the government stumbled across him but couldn’t prove it (several other dozen successful robberies, they never got close to catching him). They fabricated the case against them. They played a hunch. The Feds don’t like unsolved bank vault robberies. It threatens our belief in the power of our money. If a random guy can penetrate that and steal our money, he steals our power. We can’t have that. Tremendous pressure to convict grew. Someone. Anyone. My friend was a good bet.

Turned out their fabrication worked. He was found guilty.

It still pisses him off. His pride as a bank robber was shattered by being caught, because he knew they lucked out. They could have pinned it on anyone. It was wrong, he insisted.

I agreed.

“Fucked up,” I said. “Really fucked up. But still, I can’t write a book that isn’t the truth.”

The so-called moment of truth.

The book talk died down. Like oh, so, many potential authors, that face-to-face stare-down with truth caused him to blink first. The idea of the book ended up on the shelf of good intentions instead of a bookstore bookshelf.

Many people are told, “You should write a book about your life.” Few do it. Of those who do, many still struggle with the fundamental task of truth.

First: writing a memoir requires being honest with yourself. Rigorously honest. If you haven’t tried it, it’s hard to explain how wrenching the process can be. Of all the lies we tell in life, we lie to ourselves the most. We live the script we write for our character rather than live our authentic self.

Have you ever read a memoir by a former pro athlete or political figure or most famous people? They read like the characters they portray. They are books about the brand, not the person and they aren’t that great. But the best memoirs, the truly memorable ones compel us by their authenticity.

Second: writing a memoir requires us to write that truth in a compelling way. Many of us write about our lives in journals. The emotional depth in a journal can be dramatic. It can be healing. It can powerful. But it isn’t something others would want to read unless you’re historically significant or naturally hilarious. Our journals are only interesting to us. They are not the stuff of a bestseller.

So then, this second step is a tough one. We have to take our sordid, confusing, dishonest lives and make them compelling, understandable, readable and honest. We have to turn our lives into a page-turner. An honest page-turner, no less.

Writing a memoir is not easy. Those who do it (and finish) are pretty few in my experience. Those who do it well make up a club more exclusive then the Knights of the Templar.

I truly enjoy the craft of writing fiction. But I came to a point in my life where I felt compelled to write a memoir. I avoided it for years until the point came where I felt God would not let up until I started. I described it as my Jonah in the Whale moment. I had a choice. Either agree and be vomited Jonah-like onto the beach of my new life or be consumed into whale shit. Tough choice, but I took the vomit and started writing the book I believe God wants me to write.

I love writing fiction, but too often I lived fiction. I lived the story I told, not who I really was. I allowed myself to believe the narrative about me rather than be me, for better or worse. I ran from my life right smack into a prison cell. I ended up in rehab in prison. Rehab sucks. Prison sucks even worse. Both at the same time, well, that’s sort of like a Far Side cartoon drawing of hell, only without the laughs.

But that is where I rediscovered that we are not what we do. All that stuff is part of becoming. Thank God’s loving Grace that She doesn’t keep score of our behaviors. Some get it easier than others. I get it only through red-faced moments that sear my brain. I’m slow. But in figuring it out, I discovered I am human and I’m a person who is doing my level best in this crazy, stupid, wonderful, spinning existence called My Life.

In that dark turn of my life I found it. I became honest. In writing the truth, I discovered the empowerment of a truthful life. Instead of saying “I am fucked up,” I began to admit “I fucked up.” In so doing, I became less so.

If we are honest we become our better selves. If we are honest, we find the spiritual stuff that in the end is most real. Whether we write a book about it or not is, in the end, far less important.

But for those who feel compelled to like I do, like my writing buddy Dawn does, then be courageous because when you succeed you will offer the world a rare gem.

#SFWC2015 lives on in writing group

Here’s the link to an article that Scot Bolsinger wrote about the writers group he formed and that I am proud to be a part of.

#SFWC2015 lives on in writing group.

1000 Words a Day for 90 Days

Challenges

It’s shocking to realize I’ve only posted one full length blog here since the new year. Between committing to working harder in real estate, the work I’ve been doing with the Huichol Indians, and my outstanding ability to fritter away time in the great outdoors surfing, it’s been a busy year for sure, but there’s no excuse for how little writing I’ve accomplished so far this year. Now however, thanks almost exclusively to Andrew Scot Bolsinger, I’m taking steps to change that. All you need to know about Scot is that his website address effinartist.com kicks ass, he kicks ass, and thanks to him, I’m starting to kick some writerly ass. Okay that and that he’s a writer, editor, coach, activist, and felon. Go, read his bio now.

So how did Scot and I meet so that he could kick my writerly ass? We didn’t. At least not face to face. Scot and I both volunteered at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February (as I have every year since 2011), but when our paths crossed he didn’t have a moment to stop and chat because he was volunteering to be the conference organizer’s personal slave, er, I mean, assistant.

I should mention that I almost didn’t go to the conference this year because I didn’t want to have to look the same people in the eye whom I see every year and tell them I still didn’t have my book done, not even a first draft. I was deeply ashamed of my lack of progress and told myself I would not allow myself to feel like that again when SFWC 2016 rolled around. So like every year I attend the conference, I tried once again to hook up with someone (get your mind out of the gutter Mom!) to be accountability partners. I would offer to read their stuff and they’d read mine and we’d agree to keep after one another to produce regularly until we got our first draft done. But the end of the conference came and I still didn’t have my accountability partner. I was frustrated and my butt hurt from the ass-kickings received when I fessed up about my lack of progress to the people who’ve been my cheerleaders all these years.

So the day after the conference, as I took stock of my writing or minimum quantity thereof, I received an email from this mysterious Andrew Scot Bolsinger person, whom I’d never heard of. And low and behold, it was as if the Universe heard my prayers, he up and invited me to join a non-fiction writers group. I was so astounded by this manna from heaven I had to read the email twice. How on Earth did this guy even know who I was? And did he know he was answering my writerly prayers? The email was kind and encouraging and made me feel like I was being asked to join an exclusive and special group of writers organized by an exclusive and special editor, award-winning writer, coach/cheerleader (for now let’s just forget the felony part). And that is precisely what it was. To top it off, not only had Scot pulled together a group of eight motivated writers of varying backgrounds and experience, he also got Michael Larsen, experienced literary agent and founder of the SFWC, to join us and provide feedback. Wow! (The other “wow” is that Skype makes it possible for me to join a group that meets in San Francisco all the way from Baja, Mexico).

But the story doesn’t end there. Not only did my productivity increase as I pulled together material to submit to the group for critique in April, but Scot also offered his assistance as a regular butt kicker, a.k.a accountability partner and cheerleader. Only thing is, he doesn’t need anyone to make him accountable, except maybe where his yoga practice is concerned. But man, do I need someone to kick my ass regularly. And he’s been more than happy to do that. But it was what he did three days ago when I sent him an SOS email telling him my productivity was in the can again that made all the difference in the world. He suggested I just make time to write 1000 words, “today.”

It’s said that Jack London, one of the most prolific writers of all time, wrote 1000 words every day regardless of his location, health, or responsibilities. I’ve always rolled my eyes a little when I hear another writer referencing this fact. But the reality is that between 1900 and 1916 London finished over 50 fiction and non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and numerous articles. Fifty books in sixteen years! And the only reason he stopped was because he died (OMG, do you think writing all those books killed him?!) To someone who’s been struggling for over six years to complete one work of non-fiction writing all those books sounds pretty freaking miraculous.

I’d played with the idea of committing to the 1000 words a day program, but I always came up with excuses why I couldn’t do it. Frankly I was pretty sure I’d fail. I didn’t think I could possibly find time to write that many words every day. A 1000-word blog post can take me the better part of a day to complete, several hours minimum. But at this point Scot wasn’t asking me to do it every day, he just asked me to do it that day. So I agreed. But then he did something really remarkable. He didn’t leave me an out. He told me I had to send him the 1000 words. To which I responded:

oh fuck…you really are going to hold me accountable…

Yup, that’s what accountability partners do.

So I wrote those 1000 words, dammit! And you know what? I wrote them in under an hour because there were waves and I wanted to go surf more of those waves because I’m a wave junkie and a wave junkies can never get enough waves. And even though I vomited those 1000 words onto the page, they weren’t, according to Scot, complete drivel. They were certainly far from being my best work, but they were comprehensible and they got me over the hump on a chapter I’ve been pulling my hair out on for months (um, yeah, that’s ‘cause it’s the chapter where I describe losing my virginity).

Then another miracle occurred. Getting those 1200 odd words down on the page in such short measure inspired me to write again the next day, but this time 3800 words were the result! Yeah, I know, holy chit batman! Almost four Jack-London-writing-days in one sitting. And now here I am on the 900th word of a 1000-word blog that will fulfill the third day in a row of the 1000-Words-a Day Challenge (924, 925, 926…yeah, I could finish this blog post just counting out the numbers, but I don’t want to! I have important stuff to say here man!!). Oh yeah, so Scot also introduced the writers group to the Alcoholics Anonymous idea of “90 in 90.” That is, repeating something 90 days in a row to establish new habits and discipline. He generously offered to be our cheerleader on that as well.

So the bottom line is this – I’m writing this blog post to share with you my pledge to myself. Here it is:

I commit to writing a minimum of 1000 words every day for the next 90 days. I will focus these words on my memoir principally, but allow for a maximum of one blog post per week. I will not allow the lure of good surf, good food, good wine or even good sex with a surfing wine-drinking gourmet chef to dissuade me from writing those words. I state it here for all to see: There is no excuse for not writing those 1000 words because it takes less than an hour to write them. I pledge to write more than 1000 words on the days when I am moved to do so and in order to make up for all the time I’ve lost not writing 1000 words a day until now. And furthermore, I pledge to do my darnedest, write as many words as I need to write to have the first draft of my memoir completed by July 31st, 2015.

That’s write, I mean, right. This is my pledge. [dramatic arm-flourishing bow]

I invite you to drop me an email any old random day to ask me if I’ve met my word commitment yet that day. I also hope that if I don’t meet that commitment to myself, you’ll come a kickin’ with your shit-kicking ass kickers to set me straight. And I hope you’ll celebrate with me, when I report that I have. My success is your success, my failure…well, that’s something I gotta own all on my own.

[Whew! 1487 words!! Jumps up and down arms held high in the air Rocky-Balboa-style]

Hope, Heartbreak, and Hope – My latest article for The Scuttlefish

Showing budding Cabo Pulmo conservationists a sea cucumber.

Showing budding Cabo Pulmo conservationists a sea cucumber.

This is just a quick post to give you the link to my most recent Scuttlefish piece titled Hope, Heartbreak and Hope. What I Learned from Directing an NGO in Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. A Scuttlefish Feature. Please click on over and check it out. The videos and photos are pretty amazing thanks to editor, Chris Dixon’s input.

When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Appears

Rumi do no seek loveIf you read this blog regularly, then you know that I’ve struggled over the last couple of years with living on my own. The loneliness tends to creep in around dinner time and sticks around until I fall asleep or numb it out with one of my three go-to additions (TV, food, booze). I’ve tried to remedy this unpleasant feeling in other, more productive ways – meditation, working and playing hard (basically keeping busy), and working with two wonderful Huichol shamans (more on that soon) – but I remain susceptible to its pangs more often than I care to admit. Nevertheless, I think it’s a basic human necessity to share your life with someone with whom you share a special intimate bond.

However, a recent sojourn into that tricky realm brought to my attention that, more often than not, there is a barrier between me and the rest of you that makes having a healthy relationship difficult, if not impossible. It’s nothing unique. I’m pretty sure there are others who have constructed, knowingly or not, a wall between them and the rest of us too. I picture mine as constructed of red brick, old clay bricks, crumbling to create a substantial pile of red rubble on the ground near its base. Large chunks of mortar are missing and the corners of the walls are uneven and lower than the rest of the wall. It’s old and failing, but it still separates me from you. Sometimes I can’t even see or hear you on the other side.

Your wall might be made of stone, concrete, straw bails, or maybe it’s just a sheet of plastic that you can pull down in one fell swoop, but it’s there, separating us, keeping us from connecting. You say I’m just writing in metaphor, but I say it may as well be real because there is nothing more powerful in keeping you from what you want than FEAR.

Fear keeps me bottled up too often. I don’t write more because I’m paralyzed by fear. I don’t reach out to more people because I’m afraid. And fear keeps me from expressing who I really am, in so many ways, far too often.

The blessing is that whereas I’ve been oblivious to its influence on my behavior for most of my life, I see the fear now, recognize it and my attempts at subverting it. I see now how I’ve hurt myself, lost sleep, and a lot of hair trying to outrun the fear. A lot of my actions – like surfing hard, stressing over my body image, and needing to know all the answers – are just me trying to cover up my intense fear that you’ll discover I’m imperfect and therefore unacceptable and unlovable. I’m so afraid of rejection that I do back flips in an attempt to prove to you that I deserve your love and attention.

The funny thing is that I had to be rejected to see how much my actions are motivated by my keen desire to avoid that very rejection.

I fell for someone recently, and as is typical for me, I fell hard, fully, unabashedly, and, it turns out, foolhardily. At first he seemed to be falling too – we were two people falling into the fuzzy abyss of love with big smiles on our faces, holding hands on the way down. We seemed to read each others minds and synchronicities abounded when we were together. For the first couple of weeks I couldn’t walk down the beach without finding heart-shaped rocks. Not just “a” heart-shaped rock, but rock after rock. One of them, about an inch across and pink, was almost perfect. My interpretation? Our love was divinely orchestrated.

But then he let go of my hand and I kept falling.

I fell for a while before I realized that I was on my own in feeling the way I wanted so badly to feel and to be felt about. I was pretty deep down in that hole when I finally  accepted I was alone down there with a goofy grin on my face, holding on to nothing.

That was hard. It felt a lot like someone kicked me in the stomach with steel-toed boots. I guess it was the impact of hitting the hard reality waiting for me at the bottom of my free-fall into unrequited love that knocked the wind out of me. What really happened was over the course of several weeks the other person’s actions (like his reaction when I gave him that pink heart-shaped rock) and what those actions said about how he felt sank in, and I had to admit to myself, “He’s just not that into you.” Yeah, no one wants to hear that, even if it’s your very own heart gently sitting you down and telling you like it is for your own good.

I cried a lot that evening. I took a walk down the beach as the sun was setting and felt the hurt and the anger bubbling up to the surface despite my attempts to keep them down. It all came out in a big blubbering, tear- and regret-filled emotional waterfall. I was angry with myself for being such a fool, for jumping into the deep end of a relationship once again, for wanting it to be what I’ve waited for so badly that I rushed in without giving things time to cure, without giving either of us time to discern whether this was the path forward or not. As the anger dissipated, it was replaced by sadness as I felt, once again, the hole in my heart where loneliness lives.

“Oh, it’s you again,” I said with resignation. “So, tell me, when are you going to leave for good?”

“As soon as you learn to look for love within.”

“I’m working on it,” I said, looking up at a sky filled with so much beauty I knew my thoughts were heard elsewhere.

This experience taught me something that I’ve been unaware of until now. It turns out I’m scared a lot. I’m running scared shitless of what other people think, afraid of people’s judgment, and especially their rejection. My whole life story is driven by avoiding rejection. I’ve said it before, and someone wiser probably said it long before, fear is a poor motivator. It’s a lot like running from your own shadow. You can never outrun it. And I’ve tired of running.

The good news is that somehow during this experience, I realized that this heart of mine is full of love. As I ran over in my mind what happened and how things had fizzled so fast, I considered my actions in both romantic and other relationships and saw that they are more often than not caring, giving, and kind – all demonstrations of love. Gratitude, appreciation, and empathy are all rooted in love as well and these are emotions I experience daily. This made me realize that the fear that has driven me so often is not so much solid like a wall, but merely a smokescreen hiding the love that has always been right here inside me. To transform it and pass to the other side where we can all connect, I just need to turn that love inwards and recognize that I deserve my own loving embrace as much as anyone else does. So far, I mostly know this intellectually, but little by little I’m beginning to feel it in my soul.

thinklessfeelmore“Think less, feel more” was one of the many wise things my lover-turned-friend-and-teacher said to me during our courtship.

I can feel it right here in my heart, that unconditional love that I keep looking for elsewhere…I’m getting close, so very close.

IMG_0519

One of the miraculous sunsets we’ve been treated to lately.

 

 

A Gigantic Ocean Mine Threatens Baja California

I’m amazed to discover it’s been three months since I posted anything here. While that doesn’t necessarily mean I haven’t been writing…it does mean I’ve been writing very little – a poem here, a few hundred words in my memoir there, and several lame-duck attempts at writing a blog post that never took off. Recently, however, I was spurred on by both the desire to do something about an environmental disaster-waiting-to-happen and the promise of some coinage in return for my words. Below you’ll find a link to the resulting article about a deep sea phosphate mining operation proposed for just off the coast of Baja California. Like the title says:

“A Project of this Magnitude has Never Been Undertaken on Earth.”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo courtesy of Dr. Urmas Kaldveer

Please take the time to sign the petition linked to at the bottom of the article and share it on all your social media links. Thanks and Happy Holidays to you all!

Into the Eye of Odile

Odile Up Close

Hurricane Odile making landfall.

During the second week of September, 2014, a Category 3 hurricane by the name of Odile had the tip of the Baja Peninsula in her sights. On the 14th, at approximately 11:30PM, she moved ashore and wreaked havoc. She was one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall on the peninsula and easily the strongest storm in recorded history ever to make a direct hit on Los Cabos. (The only storm comparable was Hurricane John, which in 2006, hit a much less populous area here in the East Cape where, in comparison, only a small number of people were affected). In her wake, Odile left two cites, Cabo San Lucas and especially San Jose del Cabo and their quarter of a million citizens without power, communications or running water. Because I live off-the-grid, I had power, running water, and even an Internet connection. Between here and town though, power poles and major electrical towers were downed everywhere, making it difficult or impossible to drive the local roads. Most homes had serious damage, especially those on the beachfront, which were inundated by a storm surge created by massive waves unheard of in the region. In the panic after the storm the stores were quickly emptied of any and all of their contents. With no way to resupply – the airport and roads were impassable – people who hadn’t prepared for the storm, or who lost everything, were left completely destitute. To quote six year old Lucas Nobili, Odile was “quite a bitch.”

Lucas Letter to Odile

English writing exercise by Lucas Nobili Photo: Pablo Nobili

The good news is that ten days after the storm hit, the citizenry of Los Cabos have restored order, begun a massive cleanup effort, and with the help of the federal electrical commission, power is being reconnected little by little, allowing stores to reopen.

My account of going through the storm, alone, has been published on an online magazine called The Scuttlefish. Check it out by clicking on the link below and let me know what you think.

Into the Eye of Odile on The Scuttlefish