Off the Mat

Last week I ran away to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Set in the serene Berkshires between the charming small towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, Kripalu provides an oasis for me when I need one. This was one of those times. In addition to some family stresses that have disrupted the daily routine, I have my fledgling little novel, trying to take form, and I wanted to find a way to keep life from getting in the way and disrupting its flow.

Because I was taking a retreat rather than an entire program, I had the option of showing up to a class or not, so I had plenty of alone time. Me time. Unobstructed, uninterrupted time. I spent the mornings, after early yoga class and breakfast, working on my novel. I’m taking a Plot and Structure course through the Writer’s Digest Online Workshops, and just before leaving for Kripalu had created, surprisingly for me, an outline of the novel. This is new for me, and I am pleased to announce that creating some structure for the story does not eliminate the opportunity to create and experiment.

During the week, I was assigned to write the beginning of the novel. I cringed at that, knowing I was making a first, and rough, beginning available to others for comment and critique. In the past, this would have killed my writing. This time, though, I feel less like I’m treading dangerous ground. The group I’m in are skilled writers who are also adept at making thoughtful, helpful comments. I’ve put it out there…we’ll see how it goes. This week, I’ll write three scenes.

I find the whole process fascinating. The complexity of writing a book is being broken down into manageable pieces, so by the end of the class, without feeling like I’ve made a lot of effort, I will have a strong skeleton for the entire book.

But back to Kripalu. I showed up for a class one morning to learn about self-compassion, something all writers could find useful. There I met Aruni, a woman of humor and practicality who also happens to be a writer. After class, I signed up for one of her coaching sessions. Writer to writer, we connected, understanding the joys and challenges of the writing life. I wasn’t there to learn more about writing, but to learn more about my attitude toward writing, and to identify ways to make the process easier and more fun.

In When a Grandchild Dies, as a writer, and now in Patchwork, as an editor, I grabbed the energy of inspiration by honoring the dead: in the former, my daughter Reba, who was stillborn in 1997, and in the latter, my late mother-in-law Jenny, who died and left a profound gift of the written word for all of us. How to translate this energy into something that works for a novel, where everyone is made up?

We decided that I will set up a little ceremony where I will introduce myself to my main character, Claire, a burned-out lawyer who will find friendship in a foreign language class, and who will discover her peace of mind through travel. I will amp up her status from mere imaginary friend to, as much as possible, a real person. We will “chat” weekly so I can check in and see if she likes how I’m telling her story. I will make a commitment to Claire to tell her story in full…to let her know that I hear her and value what she has to say.

This may sound a little “woo woo” to non-writers, but we writers know that the most important act we can make as a writer is to find what works. As a yogini, my commitment is to find more and better ways to translate my practice from the mat to the rest of my life. The idea of using ritual, ceremony, and prayers to create the book make it a practice. Practice means we don’t have to be perfect, we just keep showing up and doing our best. I think I’ll give that a try.

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