I Am Well if You Are Well

I Am Well if You Are Well

I was a week away from my due date. I was enormous and uncomfortable as I stood barefoot on the deserted beach. I had survived the past year. Barely. Grief and sadness swirled in me like aurora borealis. Birth demands hope. You have to be an optimist to bring new life into the world.

As I scanned the horizon, my heart heavier than the heft of my unborn son, a whale leapt out of the water, twisted in an air-dance before it disappeared again. I gasped. I have seen many whales breach, but none so completely.

It launched again. And again. Each time, my gasps turned to whoops, and then to laughter. I looked around as people do in the presence of large sea creatures, to say, ‘Check out that crazy backflipping whale!’ but I was alone on that beach, the only witness.

Eighteen years have passed, but the magic of that moment remains unabbreviated in my psyche.

When that whale soared in defiance of gravity, I swear, I felt chosen: to be the eye that sees the tree fall in the forest, so that it can be said, ‘it made a sound.’

Sometimes when we’re unravelling, all it takes is an instant like this to rewire us and bring us back. It’s not every day that we’ll find ourselves the only onlooker to an uncommon sighting in Nature such as this. But there is an equivalent witnessing process we can each draw on whenever we need it. And it happens through writing.

When we put words on the page, two mystical processes are activated. Firstly, we take up our position, no longer as a victim of our lives, but as an attentive survivor. It requires of us new and brave eyes because if no-one else has seen our grief we may have begun to ‘unsee’ it too. When asked ‘how are you?” we may have taught ourselves to say, ‘I’m fine, really,’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ We may have become sanitation experts of our experiences, with easy, manicured responses to some of our most profound suffering.

There is danger in this wilful un-witnessing. In his beautiful book The Smell of Rain on Dust, Martin Prechtel writes, ‘It is a terrible source of grief not to be able to grieve.’ When we do not tend to ourselves in this deeply present manner, we tolerate illness, loneliness and invisibility. It’s exhausting not to feel the truth of our experiences.

Writing reverses all that. When we write, we volunteer to be the eye that sees. Heartache and loss – which perhaps has felt unshareable – is reshaped. And I would go so far as to say that even if no-one ever reads our words, we have by our own action declared, ‘My life is worth bearing witness to.’ That alone, is deeply healing.

 

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Secondly, in writing, we summon our own hidden wildlife – it’s always there, just beneath the surface, the way the whales exist in the ocean long before we catch them playing in full sight. As we stitch language to emotion, we invite meaningful, creative conversations with ourselves about what it means to be alive. I believe this is what Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist meant when he said, ‘You have to learn to recognize your own depth.’

We may even fall back in love with ourselves when we receive – as we always do – a sign (the emotional equivalent of a breaching whale) that something powerful and beyond imagination survives within us. I have seen many people come back from the dead through their writing.

So how do we create an environment for this witnessing to flourish?

Martin Prechtel suggests we go down to the ocean to grieve, but never alone. Always with a ‘designated non-griever.’ Someone who ‘knows how to listen’ and who will not try to ‘cure you.’ The role of this person is to witness your grief, and to make sure you don’t drown. Someone to keep you safe, but not restrained.

As a writing mentor, I have started to think of myself as the equivalent of a ‘designated non-griever,’ someone who can remain compassionate and unflinching as people explore the desolations and wounds that have made them who they are.

The Shona tribe of Zimbabwe respond to the greeting ‘Are you well?’ with, ‘I am well if you are well.’

These words are  my invitation to anyone who wants to awaken through their writing. It’s been my dream to create an online community where people who have until now, felt alone in their suffering, can feel like they belong.

We have a shared responsibility to bear witness to one another’s grief, lest, as Cheryl Strayed reminds us, ‘the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live – well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease. We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help.’

Storytelling is how we share this load with others and as a culture, carry one another forward. In telling our stories we put a call out in the universe, ‘Is anyone there?’ When our story touches another, who calls back, ‘I am here, if you are here,’ it’s as if for a brief moment a whale dances and hope leaps back at us, wildly and unjustifiably.

And we remember who we are and why we are here.

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What Is Worth Being Famous For?

What Is Worth Being Famous For?

I always wanted to be famous.

I once imagined if Ellen DeGeneres just had the chance to meet me, we’d become best friends.

And that if Annie Leibovitz got a glimpse of my profile, she’d beg to photograph this nose.

And that if Jamie ever got my lamb shank recipe out of me, he’d invite me to be his special guest.

I once fantasized about my books being made into movies (it nearly happened – twice…) and the red carpets and designer gowns that would involve.

But blessedly, things changed.

Heath Ledger. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Peaches Geldorf. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. Others too.

Fame has its shadows. Public suffering is a wretched invasion of the soul’s privacy.

I also got older.

It struck me that fame is maybe fun for two days a month. After your period.  On good hair days.

And that having paparazzi trailing you and people pestering you for your autograph is an ongoing harassment that must disturb your peace, never mind your breakfast.

 

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

The itinerant vanity that occasionally visits the unfamous to remain presentable, attractive and interesting, in the famous must so easily become an inured Botox obsession, plastic surgery habit, eating disorder or addiction (though we unfamous seem to manage to lead celebrity lives in just these ways).

Now fame seems as childish as my girlish longings for Mark Hamill (strictly from the first Star Wars) or to grow a pair of wings. Maybe I’ve just had my Lucy Jordan moment and I’m ready to be a real grown up.

I had my bestseller. The Germans bought over half a million copies of my least impressive book, Secret Mothers’ Business. Most of my best work has slipped by, unnoticed by the world, but deeply loved by me. My book Things Without A Name – a rare gift life gave me to write it.

Now I want other things from life – to lift up other writers and help them get their work into the world. I want, in the poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s words ‘to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.’

I never want to forget that I can teach others how to write. I can inspire people to tell their stories. I can show them, ‘this is how I did it, and so can you.’

That feels real. It feels meaningful. It feels more than enough.

If you have a book in you, or a story you’ve been wanting to share, I am waiting to meet you.

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It’s not under the pile of unopened mail.

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Sometimes, People Don’t Trust Me

Sometimes, People Don’t Trust Me

Sometimes, people don’t trust me. Here’s why:

When someone comes to me with a burning desire to write, or a story that’s wormed its way into their core, I am a cheerleader. Like the craziest, wildest, noisiest fan: ‘Go!’ ‘Keep going!’ ‘You can do this! You’re almost there!’

And this makes some people uncomfortable.

People mistrust enthusiasm. They think it’s insincere.

So sometimes, people think I’m bullshitting when I encourage them. As if perhaps I have some hidden agenda.

I get cornered with these questions a lot:
‘Joanne, do you really believe everyone can write? What happens if you read someone’s writing and you think, “This is shit. This person can’t write. Why would you still encourage that person to write?”‘

And here’s what I think:

Do I believe everyone can write?
Actually, I do. More than that, I believe in everyone’s right to write. If you can talk, you can write.

To decode this a bit more:

  • I do not judge whether someone’s writing is shit. I don’t use words like ‘shit’ or ‘crap’ to describe anyone’s writing – including my own clumsy clichéd words.
  • I prefer terms like ‘this works’ or ‘this needs work’ or ‘this doesn’t work.’
  • What I mean by ‘this doesn’t work’ is that the writing is not ready to be shared with others.
  • Writing is ready to be shared with others when the writer has done more than just hack out some words on a page.
  • It is ready when a writer has gone back – many times, and shaped, sheared and shorn the writing.
  • Writing that is clichéd, sentimental, sloppy and lacks structure or discipline is not ready to be shared.

But guess what? Everyone’s writing is like that – not only beginners, but first drafts of even the most accomplished writers.

Do I believe everyone should write?
No, but if you feel like writing, if you want to write, then why wouldn’t you?

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Do I believe everyone can write a book?
Hell, no. That takes a certain kind of discipline. If you are a start-a-new-thing-every-week kinda person, or are born under the star sign of ‘this-is-too-hard-I’m-giving-up,’ or your Myers Briggs profile is ‘I-don’t-care-if-this-is-sloppy-maybe-no-one-will-notice,’ you are not going to write a book. If you struggle to finish anything (reading books, tidying up, getting out of relationships) you will never write a book. A book is for finishers. And if you never invest in getting support, help or input about how to write well, it is highly unlikely that you’ll ever finish.

Do I believe everyone can get published?
That’s a nope. Getting published is a whole new territory of torture – at least in the traditional sense. Because brilliant books are rejected by publishers. Because publishers publish slop. Badly written books. Poorly conceived books. And because a lot of inexperienced writers submit books before they are ready. But, anyone who can finish a book can get it self-published.

I have done 25 years of Buddhist work to curb my tendency to judge other people. And though I fail in many respects (thinking now of Trump supporters and smokers who get a thumbs-down in the quiet chamber of my internal jurisdiction), I have stopped judging other peoples’ writing. I come with a compassionate eye. I hold them to the highest vision I have for them. And I teach others to do the same.

When we judge others, we compare ourselves to them. And this is a plague to one’s own quiet conviction about the value of what we’re doing (we sorta all know this, right?).

What I do believe is that everyone can improve. Everyone can write something worthy of a reader’s attention . . . provided that:

  • you do the work,
  • you hold yourself to the discipline of self-discovery and mastering the craft.

So I will continue to cheerlead those who are passionate about writing. Even if their grammar is abysmal and their cliché’s a little nauseating. Even in the face of sloppy execution and incoherent structure. Because inexperience can be remedied by tutoring and those willing to work hard.

Not very glamorous in the end, but literally nothing can stop a hard-working writer who has mastered the 6 strengths I teach in my upcoming Author Awakening Adventure from bringing a book into the world.

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What Is My ‘Writing Voice’ and How Do I Find Mine?

What Is My ‘Writing Voice’ and How Do I Find Mine?

What Is My ‘Writing Voice’ and How Do I Find Mine?

Our writing voice is not something that’s lost that if we look long and hard enough for, will eventually turn up like a pair of mislaid spectacles that have been hiding under a pile of unopened mail.

It is a fluency we slowly accrue with our writing.

It’s the closeness we have to our writing personality, the awareness of who we are, combined with our idiosyncracies, passions, neuroses, life experiences.

It may never have presented itself to us, in much the way that our internal organs have remained mysteriously concealed. To hone it down to one phrase, we’d have to go with ‘the thing inside you that wants to be said in only the way that you can say it.’

Maybe you’re thinking, how can that be so hard? But think about it – when we’re hungry, our bellies grumble. When we’re tired, we yawn. When we need a good bonk, our bits start to itch. But when we need to write, the urge come camouflaged. It barks in our dreams, or weighs in our hearts as depression. Something rumbles in us. A formless nameless squall that winds through us, and settles as longing and may be distorted into obsessions with tidying the kitchen counter and doing exactly forty-five minutes on the treadmill.

 

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

To write, we have to have some degree of self-awareness. In meditation, we’re taught to notice the breath, and then to notice the part of us that is noticing. We become aware then, not only of the part of us that is in physical pain, worrying about the shopping list or formulating our next Tweet, but the part of us that is aware of those thoughts or feelings. Writing requires this kind of perspective too. We have to zoom in and zoom out. We have to switch between our left and right brains and be aware when we’re driving on the left or the right. Actually, being a good observer (of our internal states as well as what is going on around us) is one of the keys of becoming a really good writer. We write, partly, because we don’t just want life to happen to us, but to be noticing life. To be massaging the meaning out of it. Writing is a reflective exercise. It’s about getting to that examination that Plato talked about in the ‘examined life.’

Knowing who we are and what we want to say is about noticing where we are. It’s about location – in time, space, emotion and spiritual growth. So who are you? Where are you? What do you have to say? And how will you say it? And how can you say it in only the way that you can?

Stay close to these questions. Keep them as your companions. Let them nudge you to greater vulnerability. That’s the space we create that invites our voice out.

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‘I Want to Write… Bbbut Where Should I Start?’

‘I Want to Write… Bbbut Where Should I Start?’

Ah, of course, where should you start?

Not knowing where to begin is another reason many of us don’t start writing, combined with ‘it’s too overwhelming’ and ‘I don’t have the time.’

So say you want to write your lifestory. A memoir. Something about who you have become and what you’ve lived through. If we survey the long textured history of our lives it probably seems overwhelming: all the days we’ve lived, trips we’ve taken, people we’ve loved and lost…  

The answer to the question: where should I start? Is…. Anywhere. What you need to understand for the purposes of getting it down on paper is: it doesn’t matter where you start.

Where you start writing and where your story begins are two different things.

Writing happens in patches. It is haphazard. A bit here, a bit there. A memory from your childhood. An anecdote from yesterday. A life-changing moment when you were eight and your dog was run over in front of you. A conversation with your dentist last Thursday about root canal.

You do not need to – and please, please, for the sake of all of us – do not write every detail of your life since the day you were born. 

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

 

You don’t need to start with your birth. Because you’ll write about that and realise you actually need to give some background on your mother who was highly anxious and possibly your father who was out of work, and then maybe actually your grandmother and grandfather…. It can go back thousands of generations before you’ve figured out where your story starts. Your physical life began the day you were born, but where did your spiritual, psychological and emotional life begin? These are imponderables, so don’t waste time on them.

Just pick a day, a moment – any at all will do. You can start your story with the day you turned 45 and your wife left you. Or the day your best friend was killed in a car accident. Or the moment you were diagnosed with prostate or breast cancer. Or like I did in my memoir When Hungry, Eat, with visiting a dietician and being told I was obese. You will then make decisions about how your story moves from there. What about what happened before that? Ah, that’s what backstory is for. That’s where flashbacks are useful.

So pick a place. Any place. A moment. Any moment. It is your provisional starting point. You can change your mind about where you want to structure your story from there.

Where you start is not important. What matters is that you start.

So start now.

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