Baby Steps Towards a Book

Will I ever write a book?

I don’t know.

The question is never not with me, a double negative if ever there was one.

I live with it, or rather, it lives with me. It comes with me to the bathroom to pee and brush my teeth in the morning. It comes along to the grocery store, the gym, the synagogue, the bookstore. Oh, yes, especially the bookstore. It sleeps naked in my dreams and gives guided tours through houses I’m sure I’ve seen before. It gazes out the window at the late-day light.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I think: Maybe it will be easy. I imagine sitting down, starting, and finishing a completed draft in a matter of days. It’s an extreme vision, perhaps. You could say it’s unlikely, that’s not how it works. And you’d probably be right. But I’m not here to talk about what’s likely or sound. I’m here to tell you about the things that move across the sky inside my mind, like so many clouds.

Sometimes, I think: I can’t. I have ruined myself by writing so many small pieces. I don’t know how to sustain a longer narrative. What if I simply don’t have what it takes?

I hear these thoughts and questions and recognize their genus and species: Fear.

It’s always an option to hang out there, you know. You can stay in fear, where it’s safe, where you get to hem and haw and doubt your abilities and worry about how it will go.

What is the fear, really? What is the worst thing that will happen if you sit down and really begin? That you won’t keep going, thus setting yourself up for disappointment and failure? That you will keep going and it will be hard? It will be hard.

But not harder than this place of waiting and wondering.

I often tell clients, you don’t decide to run a marathon and then win a marathon the next day. In fact, it will be many months, years even, of slow and steady training. Maybe you’ll decide it doesn’t actually matter to you to complete a marathon, and that it is ok to be a person who enjoys walking. Maybe you will learn how to sink into the pleasure of being alive without having to be more than you already are.

Or maybe you will say, no, damnit. I want this. And then you will have to build up to it. You will start small. You will probably seek out support and resources and some way of staying accountable. You might consult with some folks who’ve gone the whole distance. What do they wish they had known before that they know now? You will have to sift through all of that outside input to figure out what works for you — your body, your life, your schedule, your work and family obligations.

Writing a book — writing anything, really — is not so different.

You will not sit down and write a Pulitzer-prize winning book in one sitting. But you also won’t write any book, without sitting down, on a regular basis, and plugging away.

I think about writing a memoir about my Jewish journey. I also am not convinced it’s time yet. I have just signed up for a 15-month adult b’nai mitzvah class at my synagogue. A group of us will meet with our rabbi for two hours one Sunday a month to learn and study and prepare for this rite of passage that traditionally occurs at age 13. But, as my son said this morning after services, “You didn’t even know you were Jewish yet.” This is true, and I wonder if it’s one of the stories I have to tell.

It has occurred to me to use the 15-month period as a way of tracking my learning and perhaps starting to fill in some of the “chapters” of my unfolding identity. The fear is that it is too big of a topic. There is a difference between an autobiography and memoir, and I do not want to write the former.

There’s a subtle difference — so subtle as to be energetic — between lying to oneself (i.e. I’m not ready) and truly tuning into what time it is in one’s own life. My intuition is that it’s not time for the book yet, and this demands that I check in to see if I’m letting fear drive the bus.

I’ll be sitting with this in the months to come.

It is also perfectly ok and honorable to be a writer who doesn’t write a book. A book is not the holy grail of the writing life. There are many ways to be a writer. I’d say a very large percentage of folks I work with and who participate in my groups and retreats struggle with claiming the title of “writer.” When I say, a writer is a person who writes, I mean it. Not every writer is a professional writer, a published writer, a money-making writer, a household name. In fact, the vast majority of us are none of the above.

The house is quiet, except for Chalupa’s snoring. I look over at the books on the shelf. I have self-published three books. And yet I still ask: Will I write a book? Clearly, there is a kind of book I have not written. There might be several. Time will tell.

What I want, more than anything, is to feel connected to myself and to others. To find form for what lives in me and yearns for a worldly shape. Stories, for me, and yes, books, are one of those recognizable shapes — a way of literally holding, and offering to others, one’s lived experience — and also of letting it go.

Baby steps might not seem very sexy, but they are the only way to begin, just as practice and commitment and a hefty dose of self-compassion are good ways to keep going once you do.

Don’t wait to believe it. Take some action and let the faith follow.

The Need to Get Quiet

Last night, we sat around reading our numerology profiles. Aviva is a 6. I’m a 9. Mani’s an 8. I love this stuff. In fact, in some other life, I think maybe I’m a numerologist and handwriting analyst.

Except there is no other life.

I tried to have another life for a long time. Well, it’s not that I tried to have another life. I just couldn’t figure out how to fit into the one I had.

I think this feeling of not fitting may be universal, but then I wonder how much of it’s a cultural thing and suspect it’s more likely the latter.

There are such mixed messages about this. For all the take of being yourself and inspirational messages like “follow your bliss,” the pressure to conform is so subliminal and coercive you might not even realize it’s being applied. I attribute this largely to consumer culture which is inseparable from whiteness and misogyny.

This is what you are. This is what you can become. This is what you should aspire to. This is what is ugly. This is what is desirable. This is success. This is cheap. This is trash. This is holy. This is what money can do. This is what your body is worth. This is what your you can accomplish. This is what we expect of you. This is the gold standard. This is the glass ceiling. This is the way to eat pray love. This is the way. This way, this way, this way.

It’s noisy up in there, people.

Makes it kind of difficult to see yourself clearly. Where are the mirrors that say: You are beauty. You are powerful. You are capable. You matter. You matter. You matter.

What do you contribute? What makes your heart sing? What do you deserve?

Then these, too, become part of the capitalist machine. Buy something that will help you feel beautiful, powerful, capable, worthy.

Fit in.

Keep up.

Fit in.

Keep up.

Doubt, doubt, doubt. Question yourself at every turn. More more more.

And so we hide. We hide our insecurities. We hide our longing. We hide our rage. We hide our grief. We numb out, lash out, tune out. We forget how to sing, cry, giggle, ask, receive, and offer.

We wonder what we have to offer. We compare and measure and rinse and repeat and go into debt and shame spirals and then nobody sees how hard things are and we feel isolated and everyone is looking down at their phones while they walk.

America is built on this. On making sure we will keep spending, on making sure we know our place among the haves and the have nots, on prizing wealth, and on demonizing poverty.

It’s 6:04am. I need to pour a second cup of coffee. Chalupa woke up before 5:00am to pee and I didn’t even bother trying to get back to sleep. When my kids were little, I would get up early some days. That hour or two before the light came up, before the house become busy with morning, I would be able to rest my hands lightly over the keys, listening for something I could only hope would make itself audible to me.

This voice, the one that is truly mine, the one that is truly yours — what does it sound like? How can I be of service? How can you?

The need to get quiet quickly becomes apparent.

Find a way. We need you.

Adam Writes: A True Story

Well, that was fun to make!

Come enjoy the video and sign up “Word Search,” a 10-week group that opens tomorrow and/or The Sound of Real Life Happening, which starts on September 11. Just look at how happy Adam is!

https://www.powtoon.com/embed/djJSQ0GgHRk/

Building Community, Asking for Help, and Not Burning Out

Asking for help is hard. And that’s what I’m coming here to do. I’m coming to ask for your help so that I can keep building community — without burning out.

This week, I created a Patreon account. I’ve been looking at this membership platform for a while now, as a way of leveling out my monthly income and taking a baby step away from Facebook in terms of where I share my day-to-day writing. As of this moment, I have 11 patrons.

In case you’re unfamiliar — you become a “patron” by choosing a monthly tier, and each tier comes with certain benefits. These include a PDF of 18 essays, weekly prompts, access to new poems before I share elsewhere, a weekly “ask me anything” option, discounts on my writing groups, coaching sessions ranging from 30 minutes to four hours/month, and even just-for-you writers’ care packages! Needless to say, I’m super excited about it and hope you will be, too.

I have it set up right now that my first goals there are financial — and they will allow me to offer scholarships to my groups. This is a core value of mine — making my work accessible to people regardless of how much money they have.

I grew up with things like summer camps and lessons and trips. Many kids grow up not knowing if they will have three meals that day. And while my groups are not for children, they are for adult humans whose early experiences in life shaped a good deal of what we believe we can have, what is for us.

I’ve carried a belief, that because I “chose” to be self-employed, I should suck it up that I don’t have paid time off. I’m certainly not complaining.

And, the real life version is, of course, more complicated than that, more multifaceted and layered. That’s the thing about real life — it always is. It’s also what makes for a) the best stories and b) true connection, where we’re not masking what’s true or molding ourselves to what we think others want to see, hear, and believe.

Mani’s illness thrust me into this work. It was one of those crazy moments where the scariest, hardest stuff was intextricable from the most creative and courageous. I started leading online groups and retreats while working at a full-time job, then after about nine months of that, including 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave three summers ago, it became clear that going back to the office was not an option. She needed me home full-time.

Now, she’s sitting here in the living room working away on her own stuff as I work on mine, with the puppy snoring between us. Her healing journey is hers to share, so I will not write to that here.

What I can tell you is this: I love my work, and all of you, deeply. Sitting here in my living room last night with four women, each of whom wrote and shared, I felt tears in my eyes. Creating these spaces for words, stories, poetry, connection, community, courage, realness — this is why I’m here.

And, I don’t always know how to see what I need in the midst of the work, not to mention being a mom with kids at pivotal moments in their own growing.

What became very clear to me recently was that I need a little break. My vision has been to be able to step away from Facebook in August, for most if not all of the month. To continue my in-person groups and coaching, to anticipate a fall full of online groups and new ideas, but to be able to take some time away, too, from social media.

I see Patreon as a way both of creating a sustainable Community Writers’ Fund, and also as an eventual way to open up more possibility for me to focus on my own writing. I do not have a room of my own; I literally write anywhere and everywhere, throughout the day — the kitchen, the living room, the car. I have dreams of working on new books. I hear the voices in my head that say: Well, that’s nice, you privileged white lady. How about dreams of fair immigration practices? How about dreams of restorative justice for communities of color?

And I know — these are not mutually exclusive. To care deeply about justice doesn’t mean denying my own creativity and humanity. My deepest hope is that the two are connected, all the way at the roots. Also, I know an inner critic when I hear one.

I share all of us with so much gratitude. It is because of you that this work has become a thing. It is because of you I’ve kept going and not, in my frequent moments of fear and doubt, thrown in the towel and dusted off my resume. It is because of your encouragement that I feel safe to share all of this with you.

Asking for help is hard.

I learned that when Mani was sick.

It’s also one of the realest things there is.

So, I’m asking.

Will you help me take a break this August?

My intention is to come back strong in September, to start again, and most important, to keep going. With all of it. Because that’s what we do. We keep starting, again and again, we keep going. And we also acknowledge that we are not machines, but humans.

Join me on Patreon, at whatever monthly tier feels good to you: www.patreon.com/jenaschwartz.

And/or: Send a one-time donation, simply because you appreciate what I share here and this is a tangible way to help one self-employed mama not burn out: www.paypal.me/jenaschwartz.

For reading this far, for being on the other side of the words, for making it safe to be this honest and vulnerable, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Now Is Not the Time to Shrink

Now is not the time to shrink.

Do not disappear into the woodwork.

If you need to disappear into yourself in order to remember what it feels like inside of your own body, do that. Do that, do that, by any means necessary. If you cannot take a day off or even an afternoon because you don’t have childcare or paid time off, brainstorm with a friend or with me. Figure out a way. By any means necessary.

Now is not the time to shrink.

Do you think of writing as a form of shrinking away from the world or a way of being more fully in it?

This seems to me a critical question today.

A writer friend asked me this morning, in a message on the Marco Polo app, “If you have any suggestions for resistance, or writers getting together and taking over the world and storming the White House, let me know.”

I wish I did. I really do. I have been thinking hard on this.I keep reaching the same conclusion, and it’s not sexy. It’s not new or radical or original. Here it is:

Keep going. Keep writing. Keep putting your stories down. Keep speaking up. Keep digging deep.

Staying connected to our own humanity, looking hard at our own places of trauma, recording our own moments of joy — all of this is what keeps a society afloat or at the very least helps us keep hope alive. “Keep hope alive” may sound trite given that babies are imprisoned, lawful, nonviolent protests are met by police in riot gear, and some who have been closest to oppression in this country are understandably bitter at the fact that all of a sudden, lots of folks are feeling scared and threatened.

But there it is. Keep hope alive. This is not the time to shrink.

Yesterday was undeniably tough. And today and tomorrow and many days to come, years, quite possibly decades and entire generations, are looking at tough times. This is a continuum. The America some of us (especially those with some variation of these identities — white, middle or upper class, able-bodied, Christian, male, cisgender, and heterosexual) have found to be a place of freedom and opportunity is showing its true colors. Its ugly, bloody, racist, greedy colors. Does it hurt? Yes. Is it frightening? Very. Is it new? No. Not new.

But now is not the time to shrink.

Coach Omkari Williams, wrote these words yesterday, and I keep returning to them:

“Do whatever you need to do to absorb this blow then get back in the fight. Our grandfathers and fathers didn’t fight wars abroad for this to be who we become at home. We have faced awful times before. Eyes on the ball. Stay in the fight.”

We have to stay focused. We have to stay in the fight not to protect only our personal liberties but each other’s. Especially each other’s. Because the truth is that the American Way has never, ever been fair. One child has access to world-class healthcare while another dies from a minor infection. One child has access to the best lawyers while another is appointed a public defender. One child has a fridge full of organic produce while another gets to school early for free breakfast. One child lives in a leafy neighborhood while another stays inside to be safe.

How a country treats its women and children, how a country treats its most vulnerable populations, is the true nature of that country.

So, how can I write such a thing and in the same breath say something as trite as “keep hope alive”?

Good question, really. I don’t know. But something in me says I must. Something in me, some fighting spirit, some fire, some deep-bellied, unblinking, fierce and remembering voice growls to an empty room: FIGHT.

Now is not the time to shrink.

Now is not the time to bash each other’s heads in for being the wrong kind of fighter, because truth be told, whether you’ve been at this your whole life or are just waking up to what’s been true all along, we need your voice and your body. We need you all in now.

Now is also not the time to dismiss “hope” as something shallow or useless. Sure, it may sound pretty in the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s famous poem (#314). Don’t be fooled by the sweet-sounding language. She was a radical in a white dress.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

But keep reading. Listen. She was a smart one:

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

These are some gale-force winds we’re facing into. Keep hope alive.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The chill in the air is enough to make you feel paralyzed. Frozen. But now is not the time to shrink away.  Now is a time to listen to the poets, those who saw through the structures of power and oppression on which this country built its wealth. I give you Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow. 

We do not need to look to other countries’ writers for guidance now. We only need to look to our own history. What we’re experiencing now is the rising of a wave that has been growing out at sea for centuries. If it feels like a tsunami, that’s because it is.

Now is not the time to shrink. Now is the time to assess.

What immediate steps must I take to secure the safety of my children? What immediate steps must I take to secure the safety of YOUR children? What immediate steps must I take to take care of my nervous system and physical body, so as not to crash and burn and be of no use to anyone? What immediate steps must I take to remember to breathe?

Breathe. Yes, breathe. Feel the air filling your lungs. Expanding your capacity to hold what keeps you going — oxygen — and release what is toxic — carbon dioxide. To breathe consciously is the basis for living consciously, and being conscious must be a cornerstone of writing, living, loving, and fighting through this wave of violence, fear, and rapid rolling back of the rights so many have given their lives to secure for the rest of us.

So if you have no idea what it means “not to shrink,” just start there.

Really. Right now. Don’t wait. This, too, is a kind of poem and a kind of fighting.

Inhale. 

Hold. 

Exhale. 

Pause. 

Again. 

And now, get out that journal, that notebook, that blank piece of paper. Open a new Word doc.

Start writing from this place, this place of tsunami, this place of fear, this place of anger, this place of not shrinking. Start with these words: “Now is not the time to shrink.” Seven words. Seven syllables. Say them out loud. Say them to the empty room. Lower your voice. Feel the vibration of your voice in your chest, your throat, the sounds leaving your mouth and entering the world.

We need that voice. YOUR voice.

We need it today and we are also going to need it tomorrow. So do not shrink. Do not be silent. Do not flail in fear. Stand on your feet. Get out your pen. And know that you are one of millions who are not turning their backs on this moment.