Monday, August 26, 2013

25 Quick Ways To Get Unstuck

There are two kinds of creative people: 

Those who get stuck from time to time...

And liars.

I'm a timer!
Here's 25 Quick Ways, in no particular order, that have helped me and people I know to get unstuck. One warning - a timer (or knowing how to set the timer on your phone), is indispensable. Do set time limits on your breaks, lest you wholly evade your writing and get sucked up into your break activity.

Hand Pump on a Hillside Well
Via dok1 @ Flickr Creative Commons
Just keep swimmin'. The BIC (Butt In Chair) method of forcing yourself to stay put until you have written XX number of pages, no matter how crappy, is something that works well to prime the pump for many writers. Like water from a well, it may start out rusty and nasty, but the clear stuff will eventually follow, if you keep pumping

Phone a friend. Not tweet, not IM, not e-mail - actually pick up the phone and talk to another human being with your mouth for a few minutes. (But only for a few minutes!)

Write a quick book review. You've undoubtedly read something lately that you liked a lot. Take a few minutes to share the love on B & N, GoodReads & Amazon. The author and other readers will appreciate it.

Nap. A good 20-30 minute nap can recharge your batteries without leaving you unable to sleep at bed time.

Walk this way. Take a quick stroll around the block (or around your estate, if you live on a big spread).

Read something. (Set that timer so you don't get sucked in!) Poem, short story, chapter of a book. If you are writing on your computer, try not to also read on your computer; give your eyes a break.

Dance break. The opposite of BIC. Put on a boogie song you love and dance your heart out; twirl like Stevie Nicks or Get Up Offa That Thing like James Brown. Sing along and move with the music. (This works best at home, though undoubtedly peeps at Starbucks or B & N would be vastly entertained.)

(Did you dance along? How could you not?)

Eat me. Have a quick, refreshing snack.  (Keep carrot sticks, celery, and other raw fruits and veggies and healthy snacks handy.)

It's a numbers game. Play a couple rounds of suduko or solitaire, or balance your checkbook.  Many writers swear that switching to games or tasks that require math skills (the other side of the brain) helps them quickly refresh the creative side.

Pink jasmine, yummy!
Sniff something. (No, not that.) Use aromatherapy: spritz yourself with cologne, burn some incense, light a candle. Myrrh is good for getting unstuck; also helpful is eucalyptus and citrus scents. Jasmine is supposed to inspire creativity. If you have a garden, cut and bring in some fresh and fragrant flowers.

Play dress up: figure out what your characters are wearing in the scene. Is a new pair of thong underwear making her feel sexy and confident, or perhaps horribly uncomfortable and self-conscious because she's never worn them before?

Hydrate: they say most people don't drink enough water. Drink a glass of water, savoring the way it feels sliding down your throat; envision all the tissues in your body plumping up and saying thank you. Or splash water on your face for a quick pick me up. Water your houseplants.

Flip open the dictionary and pick a random word.  Find a way to integrate it into your story.

Do a set of data backups.  Like hydration, most people don't do it enough. And why not floss your teeth while the backup is processing?

via Wikimedia Commons
Get up and slowly, methodically stretch for five minutes.

Take out the trash - if you've got shredding to do, shred it. Empty the shredder, the trash, the recycling, and tell the Universe you're creating room for the good ideas to come in.

Brush your hair, or, if you don't have hair, massage your scalp. Imagine your newly stimulated scalp sending happy messages to the creative parts of your brain.

Play set dresser. Imagine your characters' physical environment. Is it a mosquito-laden, warm summer evening, a misty morning before the sun has come up? Is it hot, cold, rainy? Is there a fire in the fireplace adding to the romance or backing up with smoke into the room? Is it a busy street corner where three pedestrians have been mowed down in the last year? How does the atmosphere around your characters impact their behavior in the scene?

Housework. Yes, really.  Write a scene, go clean your toilet. Write another scene, vacuum the living room. With any luck, you'll end up with both a chapter written and a cleaner household environment, but don't let yourself evade writing by focusing entirely on your housework. If you find yourself on a writing jag, keep going. Those dust bunnies ain't going anywhere.

Fun with fur. Take the dog outside and throw a ball for him; play "mouse" or "string" with your cat for fifteen minutes. Or simply pet or brush them for a little while.

Get crafty. Pull out your knitting/cross-stitch/mandala coloring book. Grab that jacket that's been in the mending pile for weeks and sew the damn button back on.

Sex. Surprise your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/vibrator with a quickie. It may well start your creative juices flowing, and if not, at least you'll have a smile on your face.

oooh, bubble wrap!
Re-read the previous chapter/poem/story.

Make some noise. Pop some bubble wrap; stomp some aluminum cans flat; rip up some junk mail. As long as it makes a nice, satisfying noise.

Breathe. You know, the slow, deep, in-through-the-nose, hold, out-through-the-mouth Lamaze breaths you learned in class or saw in the movies. Your latest project is something you're giving birth to, right?

What are your favorite techniques to get unstuck?
Leave a comment and let everyone know what worked for you.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Summer Fun, Summer Songs #GenFab

Sycamore Cove, California, July 2013
I grew up listening to awesome music, because I had two older sisters. My oldest sister led me down a more traditional and psychedelic rock path: The Beatles, The Fifth Dimension, The Moody Blues, The Rascals, Jefferson Airplane. My other sister liked all of the above, but added her own flavor: Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, Major Lance, The Doors, The Monkees, and Santana.

I loved all of "their" music, still do (although I am still extremely distressed that It's a Beautiful Morning is now a commercial for laxatives or happy pills or some such crap). But my first song, the first song I fell in love with all by myself, the first record album *I* bought, the first concert I went to, was all about summer and coming home.

via Wikimedia Commons
My album cover stated out light cream,
ended rather dingy and stained.
I remember lying in my bed, listening to the radio and hoping, praying, that they'd play my song again. (Remember those days, when the ONLY place to listen to a new song was on the radio?) Something about these chords, this song touched a chord in me. I loved the vocal harmonies, and the way the mandolin wove a second thread of melody around the acoustic guitar. The song seemed to perfectly encapsulate the caress of a gentle summer breeze. I loved the theme of a joyous reunion of lovers in the dusk, I could picture the curtains fluttering and the light shining through the window, (though now the sexism inherent in the little woman waitin' for her man, with dinner on the table, gags me).

I played the crap out of this record, on a tiny portable record player. (Remember record players, trying to drop the arm just so in the track to cue up that song we wanted to hear over and over again?) Loved Hummingbird, sobbed my eyes out to the melodramatic The Boy Down The Road. I still love this record, and although Summer Breeze is still my favorite song, as an adult I've come to appreciate the jazzier songs on this album, like The Euphrates.

Later, my brother (really my bro-in-law, but I always thought of him as my brother) took me to see Seals & Crofts at Universal Amphitheater, then a very plain outdoor venue. Concrete steps and concrete slabs for sitting on, which as a very young teenager I didn't even notice much, because,  music. Although I was a little disappointed that the live version didn't sound exactly like the record I had at home. Wasn't it supposed to?

Not long after, there was another song and band that really grabbed me, quite similar to S & C.

The lyrics to Ventura Highway are nonsensical in places. "Alligator lizards in the air," according to Dewey Bunnell, is a reference to cloud shapes that looked to him like alligator lizards. "Purple rain" was later borrowed by Prince, and the opening guitar riff and hook for Ventura Highway was sampled in Janet Jackson's Someone To Call My Lover.

Still, the whole song made me visualize/feel riding in a convertible full of friends, down the Ventura freeway on a warm summer day, headed for the beach, the sun shining, the sky blue, happy music playing and the wind blowing through my hair. Even if I've now gone down the 101 dozens of times, mostly jammed in traffic, sometimes even to the beach, and my ride has never happened exactly the way of my fantasy, I feel like I have.

And I got to see America in concert, too, with a girlfriend, in '77 or '78. This time I was expecting the music to sound slightly different from the studio version, but they were still great.

Now as a writer (and still music lover) I am still a sucker for those aching minor chords played on an acoustic or 12-string guitar, (and keyboards, and can also be led astray by a great bass riff or sax solo), but I always consider my characters' musical tastes, and what they grew up listening to.

More than politics, it's irreconcilable differences if my heroine loves music, and my hero does not, or, worse yet, is a country music freak. (I like a little country music, but too much twang = nails-on-a-chalkboard for me).

This is part of a Generation Fabulous Blogfest on the theme: Summer Songs and Why We Love Them. Click the links below to find more fabulous posts on the subject, and leave your feedback.

Do you have a favorite first summer song-love? 
Any summer song that has particularly stuck with you over the years?
Your thoughts?

Monday, August 12, 2013

This Book Changed My Life: When The Body Says No

When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.
Why do some people get sick, become disabled, or even die from diseases like cancer, ALS, Alzheimer's, while others with the same exposure to environmental toxins never get sick? Why do some people get cancer that goes into remission, and others, like my mother, die from it?
Studies at the US National Cancer Institute found that natural killer (NK) cells, an important class of immune cells we have already met, are more active in breast cancer patients who were able to express anger, to adopt a fighting stance and who have more social support.... The researchers found that emotional factors and social involvement were more important to survival than the degree of disease itself.

I am still working to absorb and learn the many lessons this book presents, both for myself as a human being, as a daughter trying to come to terms with the death of my mother and of others I've loved, and (probably least importantly) as a writer trying to create believable characters.

We often treat our bodies as if they are separate from our hearts, minds, and emotions, kind of like a biological automobile. As if a health "breakdown" is a purely mechanical problem that can be fixed by diet, exercise, the right pills, and adjusting air pressure in the tires.

Reality: Emotions affect the body.

Watch a scary movie. Even though you are in no physical danger, doesn't your heart pound, your breath get tight in your chest? Read a sexy novel. If it's good enough, you'll feel rigidity in certain body parts, wetness in others. Receive a gift. From your partner, tickets for a dream vacation may make you feel happy and excited; from your cat, a squirming rat may make you feel queasy.

When the Body Says NO examines studies and examples of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology: the way the body's nervous system, immune defenses and endocrine or hormonal apparatus all work together. (Called the PNI system in short, because psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology is a mouthful.) It looks at patients for whom Dr. Maté has consulted, as well as more famous case studies, from Stephen Hawking (ALS) to Betty Ford (substance abuse, breast cancer) to Gilda Radner (ovarian cancer, bulimia) to Ronald Reagan (Alzheimer's).

Stress - More Than A Feelin'

Stress consists of the internal alterations – physical or not – that occur when the organism perceives a threat to its existence or well-being.
Stress - if a bear appears - can save your life. Stress triggers the PNI system to send, "Let's get the hell out of Dodge!" or "Stand and fight!" messages throughout the body.

Just like circulation to the extremities will shut down in freezing temperatures, because you can survive without a toe, or two, stress (temporarily) shuts down the systems that kill cancer cells or other long-term threats, process food products in the digestive tract, and more. Like Scotty on Star Trek diverting all energies to the warp drive, your body gives "all she's got, Captain" where it thinks it will be needed, on a totally automatic level.
The stress response is nonspecific. It may be triggered in reaction to any attack – physical, biological, chemical or psychological – or in response to any perception of attacker threat, conscious or unconscious. The essence of threat is a destabilization of the body’s homeostasis, the relatively narrow range of physiological conditions within which the organism can survive and function. To facilitate fight or escape, what needs to be diverted from the internal organs and muscles, and the heart needs to pump faster.

Whenever stress occurs, even when we don't consciously feel stressed, changes occur in our bodies.

Stress, as we will define it, it is not a matter of subjective feeling. It is a measurable set of objective physiological events in the body, involving the brain, the hormonal apparatus, the immune system and many other organs. Both animals and people can experience stress with no awareness of its presence.

That whole "with no awareness of its presence" aspect cannot be overemphasized. The physiological effect on the body is the same whether we are aware or unaware of stress. Especially for children who experience recurring stress, the state of being stressed can become the New Normal.
Eventually, having unmet needs or having to meet the needs of others is no longer experienced as stressful. It feels normal. One is disarmed.

Recurring or chronic stress (such as being an abused child, or watching a parent be habitually abused by his/her partner, while being unable to intervene), being neglected, leaves permanent marks, both on the immune system and other bodily defenses (think of the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf), and in the relationship patterns we form later in life. We are more likely to choose life partners whose behaviors mirror those we knew growing up, whether those behaviors were healthy or unhealthy.
For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol... To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.
Chronic stress actually changes the way our brains function.
In people who’ve experienced chronic stress, the prefrontal cortex and related structures remain in a state of hypervigilance, on the lookout for danger. Pre-frontal activation is not a conscious decision by the individual; rather, it is the result of the automatic triggering of nerves pathways program long ago.
In situations where the body's balance is continually disrupted in response to a perceived threat, the balance of the body is thrown out of whack, And whenever that happens, cancer, or other long-term diseases, have the perfect opening to take over.

Natural Born Killers - The Body's Best Friend

In a healthy body, there are NK cells, which serve as the body's Angels of Death.

Just like in any factory, the body frequently produces cells which which would be labeled abnormal or flawed, but inside the body, there is no TJ Maxx or Nordstrom's Rack to send "irregular" material.

NK cells track down abnormal cells, such as cancer cells and destroys them, so that the majority of cells in the body are healthy and functional.

There have been many cases where the NK cells have caused full remission of cancer, most significantly in cases of melanoma (skin cancer). Why this cancer and not others? Why in some cases and not others? It can't be wholly attributed to DNA, environmental toxins (or lack thereof), but to family systems and work environment systems.

When the Body Says No refers to several studies in which tiny clumps of cancer are often found in an elderly person's body after death from other causes. Perhaps as we age we all have tiny clusters of cancer growing in our bodies, which our NK cells routinely eliminate before they are large enough to be detected.
In short, for cancer causation it is not enough that DNA damage occur: also necessary is failure of DNA repair and/or an impairment of regulated cell death. Stress and the repression of emotion can negatively affect both of those processes.

The Blame Game

One thing that has made me uneasy in reading similar books, such as Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life, is my perception (or misperception, perhaps) that the victim was being blamed for his/her own illness. Dr. Maté debunks that idea:
Blaming the sufferer – apart from being morally obtuse – is completely unfounded from a scientific point of view.
He doesn't even jump on the easy way many shrinks do - it's all the mothers' fault. While he acknowledges that hurts/patterns learned during childhood or generationally may have a lasting effect:
Emotionally draining family relationships have been identified as risk factors in virtually every category of major illness, degenerative neurological conditions to cancer and autoimmune disease. The purpose is not to blame parents or previous generations or spouses but to enable us to discard beliefs that prove dangerous to our health.

The point of doing so is that we can recognize and interrupt those patterns, rather than repeat them.

We are not doomed, the helpless victims of our genes and environmental toxins and terrible childhoods, destined to get sick and not be able to do anything about it. I think that's a good message.

Differentiation: Dance Space of Champions

Remember the wonderful rehearsal scene in Dirty Dancing where Johnny (Patrick Swayze) explains to Baby (Jennifer Grey) "This is my dance space, that is your dance space"? Everyone needs good physical and emotional boundaries to be healthy.

When we are born, we have no boundaries. We assume the whole world, including Mother, revolves around US. We don't understand or realize that Mother is a separate being, that she doesn't feel our hunger, wet diaper, tummy cramps at the same instance we feel them.
A fundamental concept in family systems theory is differentiation, defined as “the ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one's emotional functioning.” The poorly differentiated person “lacks an emotional boundary between himself and others and lacks a ‘boundary’ that prevents his thinking process from being overwhelmed by his emotional feeling process. He automatically absorbs anxiety from others and generates considerable anxiety within himself.”
Later, we realize that when we are scared, hurt, cold, etc., Mother doesn't necessarily share our feelings. Just as we don't share her feelings. But in some cases, we will be emotionally enmeshed with Mother (or Father) and take on the role of protecting her:
The child of an unhappy mother will try to take care of her by suppressing his distress so as not to burden her further. His role is to be self-sufficient and not “needy”...

What it all boils down to is a lack of clear boundaries.

Boundaries are that thing that says: 
This is my dance space, this is your dance space. 

When boundaries get confused within the body itself, when the body cannot recognize, "This is ME; this is Other," then we get diseases where the body's immune system doesn't defend against intruders, but is so confused it attacks its own cells, as is the case in MS, ALS, schleroderma, and other auto-immune diseases.

Anger - The Emotion We Love to Hate

Especially as women, we are socially conditioned to think of anger as a "negative" emotion. If we are "nice girls/women," we won't get angry with people.
“I never get angry,” a Woody Allen character says in one of his movies, “I grow a tumor instead.” Throughout this book we've seen the truth of that droll remark in numerous studies of cancer patients.

Here's the problem: we can't control being angry. Anger, according to this and other research, is the natural reaction of an organism to perceived loss, or threat of loss. Picture an angry wild animal warning another off his/her kill (see the bear, above). Usually animals do not fight to the death over a meal or a mate, but the creature with the biggest display of anger wins. "I won't let you take this from me" is the message.

Being angry is not about being a Mean Girl. It is not about going into a rage.
If you ask in physical, physiological terms what they are experiencing in their body when they feel rage, for the most part, people describe anxiety in one form or another.

Allowing oneself to feel angry in the appropriate circumstances can be an empowering experience.
The repression of anger and the unregulated acting out of it are both examples of the abnormal release of emotions that is at the root of disease.... The real experience of anger “is physiologic experience without acting out. The experience is one of a surge of power going through the system along with the mobilization to attack. There is, simultaneously the complete disappearance of all anxiety.”
I had just finished reading When the Body Says No, when in October 2012, my super-kind, beautiful friend Sidney Patrick died of a heart attack, in large part due to cirrhosis of the liver. She was 43.

She epitomized the disease-sufferer profiled within this book; swallowing feelings with food, drugs, or alcohol, always being kind and supportive of everyone but herself.
The inability to process and express feelings effectively, and the tendency to serve the needs of others before even considering one’s own, are common patterns in people who develop chronic illness. These coping styles represent a blurring of boundaries, the confusion of self and non-self on the psychological level.

I remember telling Sid's mother, shortly after Sid passed, "I am so angry." I was hurt, I was grieving, but over all, I felt so angry at the waste, at being deprived of my friend, who I loved and needed.

I remember so many conversations with Sid; whenever the subject would turn to her, she would divert the conversation as swiftly as possible to other people. She was wholly uncomfortable addressing her own needs, hurts, and dreams. Her long-term boyfriend was mentally ill, often called her names and verbally abused her, even when she was in the hospital, yet she did not want to be cruel enough to "abandon" him.

She did, belatedly, realize that something had to change. After being released from the hospital in August 2012, she told me,"If I stay with him, it's going to kill me."

That is the exact same feeling I had, after being diagnosed in 2009 with "unusual" breast lumps and cysts, which spurred me to break with my then-boyfriend in 2010.

Sadly, Sid was right. She left him in September 2012. If only she had left a month or two earlier...

Betty Ford, Betty Koschin Diehl, and Breast Cancer

Betty Ford was, of course, the first Lady of the United States of America, wife of a fairly ambitious politician. My mother, Betty Koschin Diehl was, comparatively, a nobody; eldest daughter in a family of four children. She signed up to serve in the military (Coast Guard) during WWII, as did many women. Besides the name, both women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the same approximate era, and received similar medical treatment.
Research has suggested for decades that women are more prone to develop breast cancer if their childhoods were characterized by emotional disconnection from their parents or other disturbances in their upbringing; if they tend to repress emotions, particularly anger; if they lack nurturing social relationships in adulthood; and if they are the altruistic, compulsively caregiving types.
Betty Ford's mother was a perfectionist; Betty never felt as though she measured up to her mother's standards. Betty Koschin's mother: also harsh and demanding.
The emotional repression, the harsh self judgment and the perfectionism Betty Ford acquired as a child, through no fault of her own, are more than a “good recipe for alcoholism.” They are also a “good recipe” for cancer of the breast.
Both Betty's had husbands whose professional and emotional needs came first. My mother suppressed anger, definitely, though her husband was a "rager." Altruistic, compulsively caregiving - yep. Additionally, in her last year of life, my father decided to transplant our family to another state, away from my mother's supportive network of family and friends.

My mother's breast cancer, which had been in remission, returned, and killed her. She was 49.

Emotional Competence - Who Dat?

The goal of When the Body Says No, and life, isn't to whine about what a raw deal we got (think about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where the way out is through the outhouse), but figure out what tools we do have, and work toward becoming emotionally competent. Regardless of how we were raised, we can do this.

Emotional competence requires
  • the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress;
  • the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries;
  • the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past. What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not to unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood. If the situations between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists; and
  • the awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than the repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others.

We may have had little control about what happened to us as children, but we can take control of how we handle our emotions now. By taking control, that doesn't mean pretending life is all kittens and rainbows, or suppressing "negative" emotions like anger or fear, but learning to recognize what we feel, when we feel it.

When the Body Says No closes with seven specific "A" areas of healing:Acceptance, Awareness, Anger:
Since anger does not exist in a vacuum, if I feel anger it must be in response to some perception on my part. It may be a response to loss or the threat of it in a personal relationship, where it may signal a real or threatened invasion of my boundaries. I am greatly empowered without harming anyone if I permit myself to experience the anger and to contemplate what may have triggered it.
Autonomy, Attachment, Assertion, and Affirmation.

As I stated, I am working to institute these changes in how I deal with emotions in my own life, and looking to integrate this kind of emotional journey in my fictional characters.

Have you read this book? What did you think?
How do you deal with anger?
Do you suppress any emotions (that you know of)?