Category Archives: Books

How Writers Work

This post is part of a blog hop. I was invited on board by my talented friend, Glynis Whiting, author of A Nose for Death, the first title in her Nosey Parker murder mystery series. As a dramatist and filmmaker, Glynis brings a rich background to her mystery writing, which focuses strongly on character.

Part of blog hopping involves linking with other authors.  PJ Reece, author of works of YA fiction as well as the acclaimed Story Structure to Die For, is one of the smartest, most talented and disciplined writers I know. Read his post and be inspired. I met coach and author Jackee Holder at a writing retreat in Paris a couple of years ago. Her book, 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well, is one of my favourite resources on using writing to heal.

What am I working on?

I’m working on a nonfiction book about the journey of the suicide survivor – the one who is left behind after a loved one takes his or her life. I lost my brother to suicide ten years ago and feel a strong calling to explore a subject that is of central importance in our time. Suicide rates among 35-to-65-year-olds, the age range that my brother was in when he died, have increased by 28% in the last decade. There is also a growing recognition that suicide is more pervasive in our culture than the statistics would have us grasp; many deaths attributable to self-destructive causes could be deemed suicides. Suicide is a huge issue and gives rise to all kinds of questions – psychological, sociological, medical, existential, and spiritual. What can be more important than life and death?

How does it differ from others in the genre?

My book not only offers a multidimensional picture of how suicide impacts those who are left behind and of the many faces of grief, it also addresses suicidality in those who’ve lost a loved one in this way, particularly close relatives of the deceased. The risk of suicide among the surviving sibling is more than three times greater than that of the rest of the population and my book addresses that directly. This book offers an honest and vivid account of how my brother’s suicide impacted me and of my own struggles with suicidality. It also provides a range of tools for dealing skillfully with suicidal thoughts, for dealing skillfully with grief, and for using the opportunity afforded by the suicide of a loved one to craft a rich and meaningful life.

How does my writing process work?

The key to my writing process is to get at it first thing in the morning. It’s my best time of day and I’m happiest and most productive when I honour that intention. I have other things that I have to do that involve putting food on the table, and so I need to be disciplined in ensuring that I get at those writing projects that are close to my heart. I’m also working on developing the capacity to write in the middle of whatever’s going on in my life – to be able to find writing time, however short, in the midst of life’s other commitments and obligations so that if I’m not able to get at it first thing, I’m still getting something done that day. In addition to that, I book myself into writing retreats/intensives with fellow writers where we rent a space for a week or so, devote our days to writing on our individual projects, and then play in the evenings!

Why do I write what I do?

I’m drawn to write on subjects that contribute to healing the human heart – and am inclined to believe that doing so contributes to healing at a global level. While there is cause for hope and optimism, it can’t be denied that this is a dark night of the soul in human history, and I feel a responsibility to bring light to that darkness.

Creativity in the Mourning

Yesterday began well. I had a big to-do list – and felt inspired when I created it. I had planned to glean through my old journals, work on articles for my creativity coaching business, make strides in some of my projects-for-hire. But instead I spent the day making soup, watering plants, contacting family and friends… I don’t usually accomplish everything on my to-do list but I rarely completely ignore it. What the heck was wrong with me?

Then I remembered that Abdul died. Taken away without warning by a heart attack at age 64. Abdul, the patron saint of used car owners as I used to call him, had kept each of my ancient cars on the road for the past 20 years – Harriet the Honda, Tallulah the Toyota, Tina the Toyota… “Only two cars,” Abdul would often say, “Honda or Toyota.” The only two makes worth having. He was barely five feet tall and his motor was always running. He never overcharged me, he never made me feel stupid for being mechanically dyslexic, and he never let me down. He was savvy, efficient, and sharp as a tack. A shy, humble man of few words who ended conversations before they had barely begun, his good heart resounded like a temple bell and still does. His heart tolled his love and pride for his family, his gratitude for and pride in his home, his caring for me and his other clients. His heart tolled so loudly that his bereaved family has been besieged by visitors and well-wishers, and my mother who’d never met him, upon hearing of his death, felt as though she’d lost him too.

Such losses must be honoured. Luckily, my instincts to do the simple, life-giving things like make chicken soup, fertilize my orchid, light a candle and call Abdul’s son, Shahreem, and speak about the gift of his father’s life, spoke loudest yesterday. When we take the time to mourn, we pay homage to the living as well as to the dead.

My favourite spiritual teacher, Stephen Levine, says that grief is “an innate response to loss in a world where everything is impermanent. We don’t know what to do with our pain, and we never have. We have been told to bury our feelings, to keep a stiff upper lip, to ‘get over it and get on with our lives’ as though loss were not an inevitable part of life.”

According to Levine, disregarding our sorrow “inhibits intuition. We come to trust ourselves less. We cannot ‘feel’ the world around us as we once did, so we experience ourselves as ‘a bit unplugged.’…This quality of grief can slow our creativity and ‘dumb us down’ a bit.”

Our creativity demands that we pay tribute to our grief. It is no accident that great loss often gives birth – or new life – to the artist within. In my book, Did You Know I Would Miss You?, written after my brother, Steve, died by suicide in 2004, I speak of how acknowledging our unattended sorrows can free up our life force and our capacity to create. If you sense unattended sorrows clouding your heart and blocking your creativity, you might want to try this exercise:

Reflect on your own unmourned losses, using some or all of the following:

I have never acknowledged the loss of…

I had forgotten the loss of…

I can begin to heal the loss of…

And in the meantime, may you be inspired by the Abduls of this world. May the temple bell of your heart and of your creativity toll loud and long.

The Earth Still Weeps For My Brother

“I’m just goin’ down the road feelin’ bad,
tryin’ to get to Heaven before they close the door.”

This phrase from the Bob Dylan song (from his 1997 album, Time Out of Mind) has been on my mind from the moment I woke up this morning. It took me until noon to figure out why. Five years ago today, my brother Steve had been goin’ down the road feelin’ bad. Five years ago today, he drove his well-worn red truck into a gravel pit on the outskirts of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, Canada, and took his life.

Bob Dylan was his hero in life. Bob Dylan’s music is Steve’s emissary in death.

In 2008, I launched Did You Know I Would Miss You? – A Healing Journey, a memoir/guidebook about mending the heart after losing a loved one to suicide. (I’ll be giving a talk about it at Banyen Books in Vancouver on May 13 6:30-8:00 PM.) Having felt pretty light ever since, I have assumed that I no longer needed to walk the healing path.

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Write as if No One is Reading

We’re all familiar with the fridge magnet adages – “Sing as if no one is listening,” “Dance as if no one is watching,” etc. But does that apply to writers? Does it make sense to write as if no one is reading?

Of course it doesn’t. What sane person wants to drag his or her sorry bag of bones out from under the flannel sheets at 5 AM to write a blog that no one is going to read. Well, besides you.

Well, me. Why? Good question. I don’t know why. Nobody’s going to care. Except me.

I’ve been corresponding with my writer friend, PJ Reece, the only person on the planet I envy. A financially independent expat writer living in a charming flat in Mazatland who, when he isn’t taking salsa lessons, lounging on the beach, or listening to live jazz at the nearby plazuela, is ” just trying to finish a fucking novel, which grows in size the more I work on it. It’s out of control, my dramatic thrust has vanished, a red flag that always indicates a problem at the beginning…I must sit back in astonishment at how I’ve manifested this sometimes shabby, occasionally chic, but actually very normal paradise.”

Doncha hate him? He’s also a fine writer, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve known him for 40 years (we were both in utero of course). Check out his blog and find out for yourself. You will be one of the few, as he admitted in a recent letter: “Are you reading my blog? Don’t worry. No one else is either. But here we go…that shouldn’t bother us.”

He’s right. It shouldn’t. Three days a week I get up at 5 AM to work on my upcoming book, “Where Mystics Walk.” It’s my covenant to myself. Will anyone read it? Dunno. I’ve got a bulging inbox full of projects for hire, but writing my February newsletter as well as this blog, neither of which pay, had to come first this morning. Like most wonderful things in life, writing as if no one is reading is not a rational act. It’s far more glorious than that. It’s an act of faith.

So get writing. No  one will care. But that shouldn’t bother you.

“Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” Don Marquis

Suicide – A Loss That Knows No Bounds

On January 24, 2010 at 6:00 PM, I’m going to be giving a talk at Valley View Funeral Home in Surrey, BC to a group of folks who have lost loved ones to suicide. It’s the first talk I’ve given since the launch of my book, Did You Know I Would Miss You? in November, 2008. Why has there been such a delay, given that I wrote it because people need it, and given that I’ve had a lot of great feedback on it from my readers? In fact, this is my first blog about loss by suicide. What’s that about? My hunch is that I haven’t wanted to acknowledge my loss. I was naive after producing my book, thinking that by telling the truth about my brother’s suicide and about my own grief, guilt, shame, and regret, and by charting the healing process for others, that I would somehow leave it all behind me and it would never be able to hurt me again. Talk about magical thinking. My hunch is that the sense of loss just goes underground, into the subconscious. Not necessarily a bad thing. Who wants to continually and consciously feel the pain of losing a loved one in such a sad and brutal way? We wouldn’t be able to function. But pain that is lodged in the subconscious can still affect us. It can prevent us from taking risks, from living fully, from feeling the full spectrum of our feelings, from being creative… In my case, it has prevented me from sharing my book, the single most important work of my life – at least so far.

So how do we deal with this loss that knows no bounds? From a loss that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is comparable to surviving a concentration camp? Recognize that it’s bigger than our will or our egotistical insistence that we’re immune or have transcended it. Acknowledge it, breathe into it, and see it as a reminder of our humanity. Suffering is part of the human experience, at least for most of us. When we try to deny that, or gloss over it, we separate ourselves from our loved ones who are still living, and from other wounded humans. At the heart of our suffering is our love. Something we have never lost and never will. Let’s send love to that inconsolable part of us and to all others who have suffered loss by suicide or by some other means. Let’s send love to our brothers and sisters who couldn’t bare the pain and took their lives. Let’s share the love that also knows no bounds.