The year my father died, my family was shattered. He died suddenly, and to this day decades later, even with an autopsy, we have no satisfactory answer.
I was a young writer then, writing short stories with Ron Carlson at Arizona State University and before that with the poet James Baker Hall at the University of Kentucky. As a journalist, I’d had bylines, many of them. But my short stories were still in the drawer…except for one, which was about to be published, in of all places, Germany.
With no way to make sense of my father’s death, I turned again and again to my tear-soaked pages. My father was a writer, and as many of you know from my TEDx talk (“Tell a Better Story, Live a Better Life”), my best encourager.
For months, I had held it together during the day, in my job in senior management in the Albuquerque Journal newsroom, a demanding and invigorating job that consumed my attention. We were on the forefront of technological innovations that would rock the publishing world, and the diversion was welcome. But I was just damming the river of tears. Many times, the moment I left the building, the wall would break. By the time I reached the first stoplight, the flood came.
Finding the ‘Bones’
By the following summer, it was time to do something, and I did the only thing I knew to do. I attended a writing conference, Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” writing practice workshop at the fabled Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos.
Our missive was to practice. Not to accomplish. At the time, this Zen way of approaching writing was foreign to my Western soul. (It’s ironic, when I look back now, as the co-author of a book on mindfulness meditation. I realize that I had always been practicing mindfulness, every time I took pen to paper.) But it was frustrating at first. I believe I had thought a rock star writer like Goldberg, along with her stellar faculty of John Nichols (“The Milagro Beanfield War”), John Thorndike (“Another Way Home: A Single Father’s Story”) and Robert Wilder (“Daddy Needs a Drink”) was going to catapult me into the world I wished to enter. She did, but not in the way you might think.
One woman at the conference was a three-time repeater. She told me she had not written any stories or any books, that she had just filled up notebooks for two full years with writing practice. But aren’t you going to write anything, I wanted to say, a story? An essay? To my mind, acclimated to the fast-paced world of journalism, you just dashed things off and finished them.
Goldberg instructed us that writing practice was a way of greeting your mind, engaging in a study of how your mind moves. What fascinates you. What scares you. What threatens to engulf you. She urged us not to evaluate, judge, criticize as we wrote. “Don’t cross out” is one of the rules. (Despite many years of practice, I still cross out.) What she told us was to write past the monkey mind, the critical self-talk that says, “You can’t write that” or “You have nothing to say” or “Who am I to speak about this?” On the other side, you have a writing practice piece. On the other side, she told us, you can look back to the page and “see where the blood has dried.”
Blood, sweat, tears and pages
That week, there was blood on those pages. The grief came pouring out. What got captured on a stack of yellow legal pads that week was gold. One day I went off from the others and sat with my notebook to see what I might have to show for this week in retreat. The very thought of “what I might have to show for it” was forbidden in this retreat setting, yet there I was, feeding it, and despairing.
I felt my father near, watching me, a young writer without a map. I felt his presence as much as I felt his absence, his gaze on me, but my searching eyes could not find him.
And then I heard a voice say, clear as a Taos blue sky, “You have retreated. Now it is time to advance.”
At that instant, I understood the value of a writing retreat. I needed to be away from the distractions of publishing the daily miracle that is a newspaper to know my own mind and touch my own heart. I needed time with the page. Time with nature. Time in community with other writers. Time to allow myself to be vulnerable.
After that day, my short story, “Detox,” was published in an anthology, “Wilde Frauen,” with a foreword by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (“Women Who Run With the Wolves”) and short stories by Pam Houston, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker and Joyce Carol Oates. Good company. Perhaps I had advanced.
If you’re yearning for time to shed your distractions and meet your beautiful mind, come join us at the Seventh Heaven Writing Retreat near Zion National Park, Utah, on July 18-22, 2018. A supportive and vibrant community of writers awaits you. Find out more here.