How does it feel when you get an idea for a book?

butterfliesAs writers–aspiring writers, we chide ourselves–we often wonder where writers we admire get their ideas from. We look at the book we hold in front of us, look at the colors and the typography, look at the photograph of the author at the back, run our fingers on the thick paper of a color the author chose with care, and wonder: where did the author start? where did the idea come from? what does getting an idea feel like? how will I know when I get an idea for a book?

Sometimes ideas feel BIG, they make their way into us in a way that we can’t help but notice, shaking us to the core. Elizabeth Gilbert describes how she feels when she chances upon such as idea (or, as she would say it, how it feels like when the idea finds HER) in her beautiful book on creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

When he told me this story–especially the part about the jungle swallowing up the machines–chills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous.

I’d experienced these symptoms before, so I knew immediately what was going on. Such an intense emotional and physiological reaction doesn’t strike me often, but it happens enough (and is consistent enough with symptoms reported by people all over the world, all throughout history) that I believe I can confidently call it by its name: inspiration.

While the birth of a book can sometimes start with Big Ideas finding us, it is just as likely to start with something smaller, a little feeling, a little curiosity that makes us go Hmmm – something that we’re more likely to miss. Those of us who have trained ourselves to listen to the little voice inside us know that we may be on to something (or we may not, but that’s fine, too!).

Here’s how Gretchen Rubin describes getting the idea for her wonderful, life improving book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives.

As a writer, my great interest is human nature, and in particular, the subject of happiness. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern: when people told me about a “before and after” change they’d made that boosted their happiness, they often pointed to the formation of a crucial habit. And when they were unhappy about a change they’d failed to make, that too often related to a habit.

Then one day, when I was having lunch with an old friend, she said something that turned my casual interest in habits into a full-time preoccupation.

After we’d looked at our menus, she remarked, “I want to get myself in the habit of exercise, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then in a brief observation that would absorb me for a long time to come, she added, “The weird thing is that in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running now. Why?”

“Why?” I echoed, as I mentally flipped through my index cards of happiness research to find some relevant insight or useful observation. Nothing.

Our conversation shifted to other topics, but as the days passed, I couldn’t get this exchange out of my mind. Same person, same activity, different habit. Why? Why had she been able to exercise faithfully in the past, but not now? How might she start again? Her question buzzed in my head with the special energy that tells me I’ve stumbled onto something important.

Finally, I connected that conversation with what I’d noticed about people’s accounts of their before-and-after transformations, and it struck me: To understand how people are able to change, I must understand habits. I felt the sense of joyous anticipation and relief that I feel every time I get the idea for my next book. It was obvious! Habits.

Elizabeth Gilbert describes how The Signature of All Things grew into a living and breathing book when she followed a little curiosity she felt, a little voice that urged her to garden.

…I discovered that I did not want to merely cultivate these plants; I also wanted to know stuff about them. Specifically, I wanted to know where they had come from.

Those heirloom irises that ornamented my yard, for instance– what was their origin? I did exactly one minute of research on the Internet and learned that my irises were not indigenous to New Jersey; they had in fact originated in Syria.

That was kind of cool to discover.

Then I did some research. The lilacs that grew around my property were apparently descendents of similar bushes that had once bloomed in Turkey. My tulips also originated in Turkey–though there’d been a lot of interfering Dutchmen, it turned out, between these original wild Turkisk tulips and my domesticated, fancy varieties. My dogwood was local. My forsythia wasn’t, though; that came from Japan. My wisteria was also rather far from home; an English sea captain had brought the stuff over to Europe from China, and then the British settlers had brought it to the New World–and rather recently, actually.

I started running background checks on every single plant in my garden. I took notes on what I was learning. My curiosity grew. What intrigued me, was not the garden itself, but the botanical history behind it–a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue.

That could be a book, right?

Maybe?

I kept following the trail of curiosity. I elected to trust in my fascination. I elected to believe that I was interested in all this botanical  trivia for a good reason. Accordingly, portents and coincidences began to appear before me, all related to this newfound interest in botanical history…

The little voice and the BIG voice are both speaking with us – we just need to listen.

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Is your aspiration wise – or unwise?

I was reading Tara Brach’s “True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart,” in my midnight hour of quiet reading and drifting, when I came across this passage:

In the Buddhist teachings, the conscious recognition of our heart’s deepest longing is called wise aspiration. Yours might be for spiritual realization, for loving more fully, for knowing truth, for finding peace. Whatever its flavor, the awareness of what you care about energizes and guides your practice. As Zen master Suzuki Roshi taught, “The most important thing is to remember the most important thing.”

Do you remember the most important thing? Or is it buried, somewhere deep below the buildings and the rubble of false aspirations and achievements?

Making sense of the squishy world of feelings

blessingI have a love and hate relationship with my emotions. There have been times when I have distrusted my feelings, holding them guilty of taking me down a slippery slope. And there have been times when I have ignored my feelings and that has been my downfall. To feel, or not to feel, that is the question, one I grapple with as I seek to integrate my controlled, rational brain with my free yet sometimes tumultuous world of feelings.

One lesson that I am working on learning to listen to the message that each feeling is trying to give me, and recognizing that every feeling has a purpose. Here’s the wise Danielle LaPorte on the subject of feelings in her soulful book on creativity and living, The Fire Starter Sessions.

Imagine that you’re a team coach and you’re giving your emotions a pep talk before the game. “So how’s everyone feeling about the game?” you shout. Enthusiasm shouts back, “I am stoked! Can’t wait to get on the field!” and pumps the air with his fists, smiling, looking to everyone to smile. Anxiety is pacing at the back of the room, in his own world, and looks up briefly to say, “I’m so scared I could puke,” and keeps on pacing. Abandonment issues says, “Look, if we don’t score in the first quarter, we should take the ball and go home–end it before they do, you know. But, hey, I’m in!” As the coach, you’re nodding, listening to each player intently, and assessing which players to put in the lead for your best chances of victory.

Fear stands up. “Are y’ll crazy? If I lose this game, I’ll never play in this town again.” And then Fear starts picking on the other players. “Enthusiasm, it just ain’t natural to be that happy; you gotta get real. And Anxiety! Shit, if you get on the field and have a freeze attack, we all go down.”

Finally, you step in, “All right, Mc.Fearstein, we appreciate your point of view, and you’ve got some good points. Now, let’s listen to the others.” Just like all of your emotions, Fear just wants to be seen and heard.

Confidence, (who is also the team captain) says, “I’m feeling steady. If we stay focused, this win is ours. And when we win, the offers will start pouring in. Insecurity says, “If you want me on the bench, I, I understand, Coach.” Well, if that’s where you want to be, then that’s where you’ll be, you think to yourself.

Pragmatic shrugs and nods at the same time: “Odds are stacked in our favor. Anything could happen.” Love raises her hand. “Listen, you’re all fucking amazing! And I believe in everyone of you!” Woot.

Time to drop some truth bombs, Coach. Time to lead, not accommodate. You can’t let Fear steal more airtime. And Anxiety is hanging out on the edge distracting everyone. Here’s how it’s got to go down: “I echo what Love said. You’re all amazing. We’re contenders. Enthusiasm, you’re in the front; Confidence and Pragmatic have got your back. Abandonment Issues, your job is to trust your instincts. You will know when it’s the right time to pass the ball–we trust you. Anxiety, you’re alert and we need that on the team. You need to stay close to Confidence. The important thing for you to do is just stay in the game–keep playing.

Fear, thanks for looking out for us. Yep, we could fail, it’s possible. This is risky. But we’ll come out on top no matter what, because that’s who we are. You’ve done your job, and now you’ll be playing from the bench.”

Here’s another wonderful tool from Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves Emotional Intelligence 2.0 to help understand the squishy world of feelings. This tool is particularly helpful in picking up feelings when they’re still low in intensity, to listen to the whisper, which if ignored can become a wail or a roar.

feelings
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Letting go of perfectionism and wrecking my journal

I don’t remember when I colored outside the lines. The lines were always severe, defined, binding. I colored safely within. The leaves of the coloring book were always limited; how could I “waste” them coloring with abandon?

I drew a vase brimming over with flowers one day in Art class in first grade. As the teacher took rounds of the class, she stopped to appreciate my drawing. That was it. Her approval meant I drew a dozen safe vases with flowers brimming over till the flowers didn’t have their exuberance and their wildness and abandon. They were staid replicas of the image that had come up from somewhere inside.

Safe is what I drew. Safe is what I did. My Camlin pastels preserved safely after their coloring was done, instead of being broken in half and rolled across the art sheet to create textures and messes.

I had flights of fancy sometimes when I was free. I remember taking my mother’s old pair of iron scissors, cutting through my white frock with soft pastel frills of pin, lemon, and blue, and sewed it up to create an off shoulder dress for my Barbie doll. But most of the times, I followed the directions to the T. Three quarters water, a quarter milk, a tea-spoon of sugar, half a spoon of tea leaves, and two cloves, was how I made tea for my mother when she was tired, or sick from her asthma from the humid Bombay air and her burdens.

There comes a time when following recipes and directions  does not cut it anymore. For me, the big 30 has been a marker of sorts, coming with the realization that this is it, this is my life. Maybe it’s ok not to follow directions. Maybe it’s ok to make mistakes. Maybe it’s ok to be free. Maybe it’s ok to fail. Maybe it’s ok to be. Maybe it’s ok to be me.

Perfectionism is a relational trait. It is an outcome, a badge of a time where I needed to be perfect. A remnant I would like to let go off, so I can color outside the lines. But how do I let go of something so deep-rooted?

Reading to understand why we are the way we are helps intellectually, but it is being present that heals us. Being in nature, walking on the wet earth barefoot. Looking at  mountains with the windows of the car rolled down, watching them turn from stony to sandy to red to purple, watching the snow sprinkled on top of the mountains like one might scatter powered sugar on a muffin. Feeling the cold wind and watching the blue skies and seeing the shapes the clouds make; a heart, I saw a heart!

mighty mountains

I look to renew my soul, little by little everyday, by coloring in my coloring book for “advanced colorists” (read adults), by writing in calligraphy the names of my favorite books as a child (The Wizard of Oz!), and most recently by following directions of writer Keri Smith who orders her readers in her wonderful book Wreck This Journal to destroy the journal to unclog the flow of creativity in us.

If I am afraid to destroy, I cannot create. I write one line, then delete it. I try to write a perfect line, instead of writing shitty first drafts as the wise Anne Lamott advises us. I pick up this journal and give myself permission to destroy it in the myriad ways Keri has cooked up.

After a tiring day at work where I have been productive, left-brained, and efficient, I want to breathe free, be creative. Put a pen in your mouth and write on this page, Keri commands, and I do, a 30-year-old lying on the bed, wrecking the journal at 11 at night. I smile. Infuse this journal with a scent of your own choosing. I hop over to the kitchen to slice a lemon and squeeze it on the page.

In the course of a few days, I have torn a page out of the journal and let it go, made a paper plane, squirted water from my mouth on to the journal, sewn some pages together, and written backwards from right to left, only to be reminded of my grandfather who wrote in Urdu, a luminous script that flowed delicately from right to left. Close the journal and write or scribble something on the edges. I write the words a close friend said to me recently: Khul Jao. That’s hindi for Open Up. Slowly but surely I am unfurling. Slowly but surely the ice is melting.

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Take away the power of unhealthy comparisons

Comparison-QuoteLately, I’ve been thinking about comparisons, and how they can be the root of unhappiness. Rumi said it well, hundreds of years ago:
Envy is a poison
An illogical distress
The fact your neighbour has more
Doesn’t mean that you have less.

An illogical distress it is, but then we’re all a big mangled mess of logical thoughts and intense, primal feelings. Time and again, all of us fall into the trap of social comparisons, which Sonja Lyyubomirsky, the author of The How of Happiness says is a surefire way of reducing our happiness.

We are well aware of the dangers of comparing ourselves with those we view as “better-off” than us (though we often lack self-control required to stop us from making these comparisons). As Sonja notes:

“Upward” comparisons (e.g., “He’s paid a higher salary,” “She’s thinner”) may lead to feelings of inferiority, distress, and loss of self-esteem.

Though we’re more keenly aware of the unhappiness-causing power of upward comparisons, downward comparisons can be equally debilitating.Why? Sonja writes:

While “downward” comparisons (e.g., “He got laid off,” “Her cancer’s spread”) may lead to feelings of guilt, the need to cope with others’ envy and resentment, and fears of suffering the same (equally bad) fate.

For instance, in The Dance of Fear, Harriet Lerner, a psychologist, writes about how many of her patients feel guilty coming to her, because they feel their own suffering is less than than of other people who are suffering more. Their own suffering does not seem to be deserving of care.

So, what are some strategies to avoid the trap of social comparisons? Here are some that Sonja puts forward in her book (do check it out for color on each of these).

1. Distract, distract, distract:

Good bets are activities that make you feel happy, curious, peaceful, amused, or proud.

2. The “Stop” technique:

..think, say, or even shout to yourself, “Stop,” or “No!” when you find yourself resuming overthinking.

3. Put rumination on the schedule:

..set aside thirty minutes every day to do nothing but ruminate.

4. Talk to someone you trust:

…talk to a sympathetic and trusted person about your thoughts and troubles. [What makes a good confidante? Read here.]

5.  Act to solve problems:

 …this step jump-starts you into trying to solve the very real, concrete problems that might inspire your overthinking.

6. Dodge overthinking triggers:

…write a list of situations (places, times, and people) that appear to trigger your overthinking. If at all possible, avoid those situations or modify them just enough to thwart their ability to trigger an episode of overthinking.

7. Take in the big picture:

Ask yourself: Will this matter in a year?

Distance yourself from rumination even further by contemplating your particular problem in the context of space and time.

Finally, if you resolve that the trouble you’re enduring now is indeed significant and will matter in a year, then consider what the experience can teach you. Focusing on the lessons you can learn from a stress, irritant, or ordeal will help soften its blow. The lessons that those realities impart could be patience, perseverance, loyalty, or courage. Or perhaps you’re learning open-mindedness, forgiveness, generosity, or self-control.

Do you know anyone who’s feeling in the tight, crippling grip of comparisons? Do share this post with them. Did you feel this post will help you live better? If so, sign up for updates on the blog. Lastly, you may also like:

Why? – The seed from which insights grow

Writers just starting out on their writing journey are fascinated by why an author chose to write about a particular topic. When we hold a published book in all its hardback glory, and pore over the Acknowledgements, and the table of contents, and then the writing itself, it’s hard to imagine that this book was a mere wisp floating around the world when it flew over an author who netted it, and brought it close to herself and examined it with a magnifying glass, and held it in her head and her heart, till it grew into the book we hold today, in all its hardback glory.

As I read (I LOVE her) Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful book on habits, Better Then Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, I was enthralled by her depiction of how she came to explore this topic for her new book.

As a writer, my great interest is human nature, and in particular, the subject of happiness. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern: when people told me about a “before and after” change they’d made that boosted their happiness, they often pointed to the formation of a crucial habit. And when they were unhappy about a change they’d failed to make, that too often related to a habit.

Then one day, when I was having lunch with an old friend, she said something that turned my casual interest in habits into a full-time preoccupation.

After we’d looked at our menus, she remarked, “I want to get myself in the habit of exercise, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then in a brief observation that would absorb me for a long time to come, she added, “The weird thing is that in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running now. Why?”

“Why?” I echoed, as I mentally flipped through my index cards of happiness research to find some relevant insight or useful observation. Nothing.

Our conversation shifted to other topics, but as the days passed, I couldn’t get this exchange out of my mind. Same person, same activity, different habit. Why? Why had she been able to exercise faithfully in the past, but not now? How might she start again? Her question buzzed in my head with the special energy that tells me I’ve stumbled onto something important.

Finally, I connected that conversation with what I’d noticed about people’s accounts of their before-and-after transformations, and it struck me: To understand how people are able to change, I must understand habits. I felt the sense of joyous anticipation and relief that I feel every time I get the idea for my next book. It was obvious! Habits.

A chance conversation led to this wonderful book that contains practical advice that can help people like you and me live better.  A wisp from the conversation, an unanswered question, that absorbed Gretchen for years. A question she held close to her head, and to her heart. Why is often  the seedbed from which ideas grow.

Better than Before

Here’s my signed copy that my sister got signed for me in California and sent through my friend all the way to Delhi! Yay!

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Sensitivity to Sound

The writer’s personality seeps into the words they write. I remember reading somewhere that everything that the writer is, has been, has seen, has felt is contained in the words they write, whether they talk about those feelings or experiences or not. For a reader, it can be a delight to learn something about the writer intuitively. Across time and space, a packet of information passes between the writer and the reader, and they are connected.

I recently had this experience when it dawned on me that Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely extremely sensitive to sounds. As someone sensitive to sounds myself, I see the signs peppered all through the Little House books.

Here’s one from Little House on the Prairie:

Hundreds of meadow larks were rising from the prairie, singing higher and higher in the air. Their songs came down from the great clear sky like a rain of music. And all over the land, where the grasses waved and murmured under the wind, thousands of dickie-birds clung with their tiny claws to the blossoming weeds and sang their thousands of little songs.

Here’s another from Little House in the Big Woods:

Near the pigpen Pa and Uncle Henry built a bonfire, and heated a great kettle of water over it. When the water was boiling they went to kill the hog. Then Laura ran and hid her head on the bed and stopped her ears with her fingers so she could not hear the hog squeal.

“It doesn’t hurt him, Laura,” Pa said. “We do it so quickly.” But she did not want to hear him squeal.

In a minute she took one finger cautiously out of an ear, and listened. The hog had stopped squealing. After that Butchering time was great fun.

Laura hears with the same sensitivity the songs of meadow larks and the squeal of a dying pig. The same sense brings her the most pleasure and the most pain.

As much as screechy, noisy, abrasive sounds bring me down, musical notes fill me up. My sense of sound has in it the ability to uplift and delight me. A little music box I bought from the wonderful Getty Museum on my travels to Los Angeles last year sits on my desk. A picture of the tranquil Water Lilies in the evening adorns it. If I rotate the little handle of the box, I am filled with delight at the beautiful notes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. If I rotate the handle really fast, it is a joyful season full of dances and spring and happiness. If I rotate it really slow, it is a sorrowful, haunting melody of endings and pain. But no matter what the season, the notes are magical. This little box which holds magic and music is my thing of beauty, a joy forever.music box

Did you enjoy this post? Do share with those of heal and suffer from the sense. And may with someone who loves Little House and Laura!

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