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The Fifth Anniversary of the 'Dreamslippers,' a Yogi Detective Series

BOX SET 2

Back in 2013, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery novel. I had interviewed Seattle's mystery literati for a cover story in Seattle Woman magazine, and I'd also steered the storylines on hundreds of mystery-themed computer games for my employer at the time, Big Fish Games.

Another of my chief inspirations, perhaps oddly enough, was the 20 years' experience I had as a yogi. I'd practiced anywhere from three to seven days a week, first the grueling style known then as Bikram (hot) yoga and then the very energetic Baptiste-inspired style called Shakti (like dancing on your mat).

I also lost Grace, my would-be mother-in-law, to pancreatic cancer in 2011. She'd made a great impression on me in the short time I knew her and was a huge inspiration for the character Grace in the series. She was also a very practiced yogi herself.

After that, I knew I wanted to do two things with the book: 1) create an older female character and 2) make her a magical sort of yogi. 

I was also a huge fan of the TV show "Medium," about a psychic who helps an Arizona police team solve crimes. Allison DuBois, played by the fabulous Patricia Arquette, often struggles with the limitations built into her gift, sometimes making mistakes. Her fallibility, not to mention her authentically portrayed marital relationship, made the show rise above the fray (for seven seasons!). And there's one more thing. I'm someone whose childhood trauma led to PTSD nightmares, which plagued me for many years. So the often disturbing subject matter in DuBois' dreams resonated with me personally. I was used to looking for the truth in my dreams, sorting out the terror from the lessons.

All of that background and interest is reflected in the Dreamslippers Series, a three-book saga (plus novella) about a family of psychic dreamers who solve crime using their ability to 'slip' into your dreams. Solving crime that way is a lot tougher than you can imagine, as it's not like the culprit will dream of his guilt, pointing the erstwhile dreamslipper toward all of the clues. The matriarch of the family, Amazing Grace, supplements her sleeping skills with waking-life pursuits such as meditation, visualization, yoga, and even a somatic dance style called Nia, which I practiced myself for a few years. Young Cat McCormick, the hero of the inaugural book in the series, has an entirely different take. She bends and breaks the rules, and she capitalizes on an emotional connection to solve a mystery involving a Midwestern, fundamentalist preacher and his (not-gay-at-all) right-hand man.

BRAG medallion ebook CAT IN THE FLOCK

I released Cat in the Flock under my own imprint, Sky Harbor Press, in July 2014. It zipped up the Amazon sales charts, occupying the No. 1 spot in the Private Investigators category within the first year. It was praised by Kirkus Reviews, Midwest Book Review, Readers Lane, Book Fidelity, and countless other review sites, blogs, and institutions. I was contacted by a Hollywood producer about rights, and later, by more than one game studio interested in making an interactive novel out of it. Cat in the Flock won me my first IndieBRAG medallion, awarded to only the top 20 percent of independently published books. I would also be awarded the IndieBRAG for the other two books in the series.

Bolstered by the success of the first book, and full of more Dreamslippers stories to tell, I followed up with Framed and Burning. This second book in the series is set in Miami amidst the high-stakes art world, and its prescience can be seen in the Jeffrey Epstein case today. Cat and Grace follow the clues to a murder frame-up, which takes them into the Darknet and the powerful players behind a child pornography ring. While the characters and scenario are fiction, it's based on a great deal of factual research. I also lived in that colorful Florida city for two years while working toward an MFA in creative writing, which I earned from University of Miami. And I was once married to an artist, so my experience of that world is very much first-hand.

FRAMED AND BURNING IndieBRAG 2

Framed and Burning was a finalist for the prestigious Nancy Pearl Book Award, and it was also nominated for a RONE Award, in addition to winning the IndieBRAG.

The third book in the series, Bound to the Truth, is in a lot of ways my best. It continues the series' sex-crime theme, but back in Seattle, with an informed, fair portrayal of the Emerald City's sex-positive community. Cat and her grandmother visit a sex toy shop and a sex dungeon in their quest to track down the killer of a prominent Seattle architect. It was my answer to the huge disappointment that is Fifty Shades of Gray, not to mention an homage to Seattle's openness to all, quirkiness of the best kinds, and kinkiness in spades. As a divorced woman in her late 30s living in Seattle in the 2010s, I don't think I could have had a safer, more colorful, more ripe-for-literary fodder dating experience in any other city.

The Bound to the Truth cover is my favorite of the series, too. All three covers were created by Toronto designer Monika Younger, who's designed book covers for several of Harlequin's mystery imprints and brought a great deal of experience and vision to the series.

BOUND TO THE TRUTH 1400x2240 indieBRAG

After that, I went back and tackled Amazing Grace's origin story in a novella, Work of Light. It's only found in the ebook boxed set. Set in the past, when Grace first discovered her powers, it follows her to an ashram in the 60s, where she uncovers the guru's true nature.

I'm grateful to the many BETA readers who gave me feedback on drafts of the books. We writers are far too close to the work to judge it subjectively, especially the further into the drafting (or development) process we get. My BETA readers put on their "cruel shoes" and gave it to me straight, and I revised to the best of my abilities. I think it shows in the higher-than-average quality for not just an indie but for publishing as a whole.

Another dose of gratitude goes out to all of you readers who told your friends about the books, posted reviews hither and yon, and otherwise showed support for my indie publishing endeavor. When I look back on those heady three years with the Dreamslippers, I see that it truly takes a village to raise a book!

Finally, it's time for an important announcement:

In honor of the fifth anniversary of the series, the ebook boxed set of all three books plus the bonus novella is entirely FREE wherever ebooks are sold, except Amazon, where it's only 99 cents (that is the minimum price we are allowed to offer through Amazon). So please tell your friends. And thank you for your interest in my work. I'm so thrilled you find something of value in these words.

Handy book links here.

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Amazing Grace, the Seventy-Something Power Yogi: Could You Keep Up?

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Should You Practice a Set Yoga Sequence, or Free-Form?

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Here I am in Natarajasana (King Dancer), San Francisco, 2013. (In the background is my friend Marianna Shilina-Vallejo; I love the look on her face.) This pose has been common to my practice both in the set Bikram sequence and in the free-form vinyasa classes I've taken.

As part of a 200-hour yoga teacher training, I'm studying Mark Stephens' book, Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes. Stephens’ background is not far from my own experience with yoga, as he comes from a decidedly West Coast perspective, as someone trained in and teaching in California, and my yoga practice was largely formed by the same influences. He references two Master Yogis I also know of, Erich Schiffman and Shiva Rea. As I've previously mentioned, Schiffman’s video with Ali MacGraw formed the basis of the beginning of my yoga practice in the 90s. I’ve also taken, I think, if memory serves me right, at least one class with Shiva Rea at the studio where I practiced Baptiste-style yoga in Seattle, Shakti. So even though it’s relatively easy for me to connect with this author, I’m still aware of his perspective, and even bias.

When I analyze a work of writing, I like to first make myself aware of an author's bias. This comes from years of teaching university-level rhetoric and composition; it's an exercise in critical thinking. We often use the word "bias" in a negative sense these days, but I don't mean it that way at all. Everyone has a particular bias, a way of approaching a subject that reveals a perspective or stance in relation to that subject. 

Stephens' obvious bias is toward the art of sequencing. As someone who offers sequencing workshops and has written this book, he would definitely be biased toward "free-form," or crafted sequencing, for example, over practices that use set sequences, such as Bikram.

I can't fault him for this bias, as he has obviously wrestled with the question and come to a conclusion that crafted sequencing is better or at least preferred to set sequences, enough to devote his life to guiding others in the art of sequencing. But whether a set sequence or free-form is truly better is a worthwhile question, one I haven't seen tackled much in yoga circles. I'd like to explore it further with you.

First, let's look at what Stephens finds valuable in the set sequences of the Ashtanga and Bikram styles of yoga. Most importantly, in his opinion, is the "perfect mirror" the set sequence provides. While the yoga poses and the order they are done in never changes, the yogi does, he says, "making the experience of doing the sequence somewhat more a reflection of the person doing it than the sequence itself." 

In my own practice, I can attest to this. From about 2002-2006, I was a devoted Bikram yogi, and over the course of that time, I witnessed dramatic progress in every single pose in the 26-asana sequence. Not only that, but I felt transformed in many other areas of my life as well. I put a suite of extreme allergic reactions into remission, I drastically lowered my alcohol consumption (not compatible at all with hot yoga!), and I felt a rare clarity of purpose, an energetic ambition to live well in the present and let anger and pain release into the past. A long sufferer of PTSD-related nightmares and insomnia, I finally experienced better sleep. Least importantly, I lost weight, and most importantly, I felt stronger, more flexible, and overall, healthier.

Now let's look at Stephens' argument against set sequences. He acknowledges that because the yogi always knows what the next pose will be, they can provide "a deeper absorption in what is happening right now." But he also points out that sets can make students anticipate the next pose too much, which "detracts from the experience of being fully present in the current moment in connecting breath, body, and mind."

It sounds like this is definitely the case with some yogis. But in my experience, if you get into what I call “yoga head space” and stay in the moment, you don’t think too much about the next pose. Not that knowing the next pose in your body is bad, either. A set sequence can remove the need to “prep” the body for a pose you don’t know is coming until it’s cued. So much also depends on how the sequence is cued. Changing sequences every class can feel really random and lacking in flow, the cues awkward. I’ve been much less likely to injure myself in set sequences. 

I also want to say this: Each pose is like a universe. It contains within it millions of micro-adjustments, a vast space of exploration. You don’t really get the sense of this until you practice with set sequences. It’s one of the things I miss about the Bikram style.

Stephens' biggest argument against set sequences is "the potential strain caused by doing repetitive actions." The example he gives is from the primary series in Ashtanga Vinyasa style, which leads yogis through Chaturanga Dandasana more than 50 times. He says:

Even if one is properly aligned and engaging effective energetic actions, this can be a very challenging sequence that, done repetitively,  can strain the shoulder and wrist joints as well as the lower back, knees, hips, elbows, and neck.

This is a strong observation, and in my own experience with this particular pose flow, I can say that Mark Stephens is absolutely right. I've seen the toll that Chaturanga takes on me and on other yogis, particularly women. Generally speaking, female biology puts our strength and center of gravity not in the upper body where this pose flow demands emphasis - but lower, in the hips, butt, and legs. When friends of mine try yoga and pronounce it's not for them, it's usually because of discomfort or even pain in this particular flow.

But is this the fault of set sequencing - or of specifically Chaturanga Dandasana (especially done 50 times)?

I argue it's the latter. There is no Chaturanga in the 26-pose Bikram sequence, and after four years of frequent (5-7 days per week for 90 minutes per class) practice, I did not feel the pain that comes from repetitive strain. However, I did feel it years later, after practicing Baptiste-style vinyasa, where no two classes were ever the same. The problem, in my opinion, was that Chaturanga Dandasana was a core element to the style, so most classes drew heavily on it.

Therefore, the problem isn't with "set sequence," but with the way sequences are designed, whether set or crafted. 

And that brings me back to the phenomenal value of Stephens' book. Despite my disagreement with his argument in favor of free-form sequencing, an argument I don't think he needed to make, I'm absolutely jazzed to learn how to sequence yoga poses. It seems like the Holy Grail of yoga. I've always either attended yoga classes, where a teacher is there to guide me, or when at home, used a book or DVD or my memory of the Bikram sequence, for example, to provide a structure. I've never felt really comfortable designing my own flows. But this book is already changing that. If you're a yoga teacher, you should definitely get a copy, and it's helpful for anyone with a home practice, too. It's also on sale right now through Amazon.

So far, Yoga Sequencing has provided me with some techniques for initiating the yogic process, which is the centering step at the beginning of every yoga class, and I've gained a good introduction to the idea of warming and awakening the body. A lot of this is also building on and giving specific explanation to what I've intuitively picked up through thousands and thousands of hours in yoga classes over 25 years. For example, I've long understood that there are types of poses grouped by major aspect, such as standing poses, back bends, hip openers, and inversions, just to give three. I did not know that "standing asanas are the safest family for warming and opening the entire body in preparation for more complex asanas," but on an intuitive level, it makes sense to me. 

Beyond that, though, there is MUCH more to learn. Take the issue of externally- versus internally-rotated hip movements as just one variable of caution within the standing asanas alone. Stephens says not to move back and forth between these types of asanas and to instead separate them, always placing the externally-rotated poses before the internally-rotated ones. Whew, there are a lot of rules for me to master here!

For the teacher, there is plenty to consider both in teaching a set sequence and in designing one anew. For the student, it comes down to what feels right in your body. While I had no pain with the Bikram sequence, someone else might. And while I did have chronic pain from years of Chaturanga, and it is a common complaint especially among female yogis, there will always be those who embrace and love that flow. 

My advice? Listen to your body, not your ego. After I'd been practicing Bikram for four years, I decided to try vinyasa flow, and this "dancing on your mat" captivated me enough to keep me for a decade. As I aged into my forties, however, the practice no longer served me as well, so I tried something else. And something else... AND something else.

There's a lot out there for you to explore in the yoga realm, so don't give up if a sequence or class or teacher doesn't seem right for your body. Something else will.

Now tell me your thoughts. Are you pro-set sequence? Or do they bore you to tears? What yoga style do you love?

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

After 25 Years of Practice, I Sign Up for My First Yoga Teacher Training

Amazing Grace, The Seventy-Something Power Yogi: Could You Keep Up?

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What's the Motive? Chris Patchell on Deception Bay

Deception_Bay_Cover

I'm happy to bring back the popular "What's the Motive" series here on the blog. Author of pulse-pounding thrillers, Chris Patchell goes well outside her own comfort zone with her latest novel, Deception Bay.

Here's Chris Patchell:

My fifth novel, Deception Bay, is about mystery writer Austin Martell, who is called away from his life in New York to return to his hometown on Whidbey Island when he hears that his mother has suffered an accident. It doesn’t take long for Austin to find out that his mother’s accident may have been something more ominous. Austin soon finds himself in the center of a real-life murder investigation, with a killer who will do the unthinkable to keep the truth from getting out.

Here’s a bit of what’s in store for my readers…

The boat pitches and he loses his footing as he scrambles toward the cabin’s opening. He grabs hold of the ladder and climbs down into the darkness below. The water is already thigh-deep—as heavy as wet cement as he struggles toward the red light.

The radio.

Teeth chattering, he drives his legs forward, gathering the last bit of strength. Stumbling. Reaching. Grasping until he makes it. He tears the radio microphone from its perch. Thumbs the button. He screams the words out in a torrent of panic hoping somebody will hear.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Dreamcatcher. We’re three miles east of Deception Bay. We are sinking. Repeat. We are sinking.”

And that’s just the beginning…

What’s the Motive?

There I was, heads-down working on my next psychological thriller, when one of my author friends pinged me on Facebook with an idea. She and a few of her other author friends were putting together a boxed set of romantic suspense stories. Would I be interested in joining the fun? As an author, it’s good to stretch your wings and try something outside of your comfort zone, so I stopped what I was doing and gave my good friend Fiona Quinn a call. 

Not only is Fiona a good author, but like me, she has a keen eye for business. We chatted about the project, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. The boxed set Love Under Fire has been a whirlwind kind of a project. There are 20 authors besides me who have written original stories for the set.

Working with so many talented authors has been a fun and instructive experience. But what makes this project extra special, is that we’ve teamed up with a 503(c) organization called Pets for Vets. My dog, Sasha, was a rescue from a high-kill shelter. She was a mom at a puppy mill who was never properly socialized, and when she was finished delivering puppies, they dumped her. She’s a sweet little Yorkie just brimming with anxiety from living in a box for so many years. She’s a total nutter, and I couldn’t ask for a more loyal friend. What I love about Pets for Vets is that they pair shelter animals up with Veterans in need of support animals. It is a total win-win.

Pets4Vets

This project presented some unique challenges for me as a writer.

  1. There was a word count limit! Not to say that I’m pathologically long-winded, but my novels usually weigh in ~98,000 words. Deception Bay came in just under 60,000 words. While this may be easy for some authors, for me, this was no easy feat. I had to cut sub-plots and slash sections to stay within my limit. In doing so, I learned a valuable lesson that every writer should know—keep only what matters.
  2. The protagonist for the book, Austin Martell, is smart, funny, and a little on the narcissistic side. Smart and narcissistic? No problem, I’ve got that covered. But funny… I think I’m capable of being funny in person. I mean, if you and I are having a conversation, I may be able to come up with a witty line or two, but doing it on paper… That’s a whole other thing. Some days funny is a foreign language, and it takes time to layer humor into a scene. Then there are those magical days when as Jim Rennie from Under the Dome would say, you’re just “feeling it” and being funny comes naturally. Those days are pure gold, and I made the most of them when editing this book.
  3. And then there’s romance… Typically, I write hard-core suspense, so this story had me exploring my “softer side.” I’m really excited about the result. While Deception Bay is a departure from the dark suspense my fans are used to getting from me, I think they’re really going to love this story. The humor in the book is offset by some wicked intense scenes, and when Austin falls for the one woman who seems immune to his charms… Well… It makes for some pretty fun reading.

Challenges aside, writing this story was a labor of love. I started writing it a few years back. It was the thing I wrote when I was between other things, and though I loved the characters and the premise for the story, it didn’t fit in with my other books, so I set it aside. I never could fully shake the story though. Every now and then, I would pull it out and tinker with it. There were days when I would be hunched over my laptop giggling to myself while I was editing because spending time in Austin’s head was an awesome place to be. I hope readers agree. 

AdobeBio 
Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award-winning novel Deadly Lies. A tech worker by day and a writer by night, she pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest.

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'Bound to the Truth' Wins indieBRAG, Third in a Row for Author Lisa Brunette

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Seattle, WA--June 26, 2017--IndieBRAG announced today that Bound to the Truth, the third book in Lisa Brunette's Dreamslippers Series, was chosen to receive the indieBRAG medallion. A mark of excellence in the self-publishing industry, the medallion is awarded only to 20 to 25 percent of books submitted for the award. Lisa Brunette has received a medallion for all three books in the Dreamslippers Series to date.

“We’re thrilled to award a third medallion to Lisa Brunette,” said indieBRAG President Geri Clouston. “Bound to the Truth stood out to our reviewers in particular for the excellent writing style--the author’s distinctive voice, with its pleasing, evocative rhythm--and for the polish and attention to professional copyediting.”

IndiBRAG, LLC has brought together a large group of readers, both individuals and members of book clubs, located throughout the United States and in ten other countries around the globe. All ebooks are subjected to a rigorous selection process. This entails an initial screening to ensure that the author’s work meets certain minimum standards of quality and content. IndieBRAG reserves the right to reject an ebook during this initial screening assessment for any reason. If it passes this preliminary assessment, it is then read by a selected group of members drawn from their global reader team. In both the initial screening phase and, if appropriate, the subsequent group evaluation phase, each book is judged against a comprehensive list of relevant literary criteria.

"It's an honor to have had all three books chosen for the medallion," said Lisa Brunette. "The Dreamslippers Series is quirky, genre-crossing, and female-centric, which made it a tough sell for traditional publishing. But indieBRAG readers have shown that the self-publishing arena is the perfect place for experienced writers like me to take chances and experiment."

Bound to the Truth is the latest novel in the bestselling, award-winning Dreamslippers Series, which features a grandmother/granddaughter PI duo who use their psychic dream ability to solve crimes. In Bound to the Truth, their client thinks she knows who the killer is, but Cat and Amazing Grace don’t believe her. Did Nina Howell really fall under the spell of a domineering, conservative talk show host? The case brings powerful new developments in Cat’s dreamslipping skill as she works to find the answer. 

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Bound to the Truth received rave reviews from bloggers across the indie community. “I found myself completely submerged in this story of intrigue," said Book Fidelity. J Bronder Book Reviews, which has given all three books in the series high praise, said, “I loved following along as they had to dig deep to find the killer.”

About the indieBRAG Medallion

BRAGMedallion.com is owned and operated by indieBRAG, LLC, a privately held organization that has brought together a large group of readers, both individuals and members of book clubs, located throughout the United States and in ten other countries around the globe. The word “indie” refers to self-published books, while B.R.A.G. is an acronym for Book Readers Appreciation Group. The name “indieBRAG” and the B.R.A.G. logos are trademarks of indieBRAG, LLC. The B.R.A.G. Medallion is a certification trademark owned and controlled by indieBRAG, LLC.

About Author Lisa Brunette

Lisa Brunette writes books and games. All three books in her bestselling Dreamslippers Series have won indieBRAG medallions, and the second book was also named a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award and nominated for a RONE Award. Brunette’s game-writing credits include hundreds of titles, played by worldwide audiences in the millions, for Big Fish and other publishers. New games Unknown Sender: The Woods and Matchington Mansion both release in 2017. She also has a long list of bylines as a journalist, short-story writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Woman, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere.

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How to Embrace Your Dark Side Without Getting Lost

 

The-Devil
From the Ghetto Tarot by Alice Smeets.

I begin most days by drawing a tarot card. It's part of my spiritual practice to think about the current challenge or lesson and draw a card that, when it's all working well, gives me insight. One day last week, I drew The Devil.

This can be an alarming card to have pop up in a reading, thanks to the bad rap the hooved one gets in Christian-influenced culture. I'm many decades away from the colorful images of El Diablo that illustrated my Catholic children's bible, and it still gives me pause. These days, I see the world less in terms of good vs. evil and as more of a continuum. But The Devil in a one-card reading is cause to sit up and pay attention nonetheless.

The deck I currently use is the Ghetto Tarot, created by talented photographer Alice Smeets, who based it on the 1909 work of another artist, Pamela Colman-Smith. There's a lot to love about Ghetto Tarot. First, it's a photographic representation of each card in the traditional deck, of which most people are familiar, and set entirely in the Haitian ghetto. The images are stunning and powerful, showing how the themes in the traditional deck resonate well in a culture outside that tradition. Second, this deck uniquely embraces the darker side of the tarot. Smeets offers her argument:

We tend to concentrate on the light aspects of the seemingly more positive cards and are afraid of the apparently negative cards such as Death, the Devil, and the Tower ... That's because we are conditioned by our society, our parents, and our teachers to categorize the negative as bad, instead of helpful. Many of us fear pain instead of welcoming it. But every negative situation is an opportunity to grow and learn, while every positive situation has the potential to spin out of control.

The deck plays on "shadow" as well as "light," with each card in the deck possessing both sides. The Devil's shadow side can be "acting against your convictions." The "light" is "finding and accepting your dark side." 

Drawing The Devil would have been reason enough for me to mull over the idea of finding and accepting my dark side, but sometimes the Divine hits you over the head with things that seem to have extra importance.

The same day I drew The Devil, I went to the library to pick up a book I'd requested through interlibrary loan. I had learned of the book from a review and either hadn't seen or didn't remember the cover, which is this:

  Generation of Sociopaths cover

Yeah, I know. Pretty interesting coincidence. The book is a provocative read, all right, challenging everything I've believed about my parents' generation. Maybe that was the lesson of the day: To go there, to push my thinking into a dark place again. The book sort of chose me, along with a few others on class in society--after this in my stack are White Trash and Poor But Proud. It's all research for an in-progress novel based on a real-life murder.

My previous work is a lot of light: the Dreamslippers Series. Back in 2012 when I began to write those stories, I started to take my first book in a darker direction, and the result is that I relapsed into PTSD nightmares, which I'd been free of for some time. So I backed away from that and wrote a cozy-ish series about a 70-something yogi named Amazing Grace instead.

But of course, some of the darkness seeped in. It's called conflict, and you can't have a story without it, especially if your sleuths are solving murders. Besides murder, I also tackled anti-gay violence, racism, murderous jealousy, BDSM, child pornography, and incest. So, yeah. Even when I've got my head turned toward the light, the darkness fringes. At the corners, at least.

I'd been content to relegate it to the edges. But this Devil showing up in my life with such force made me wonder. A recent bout of writer's block specific to the aforementioned novel-in-progress came to mind. Maybe the block had to do with suppressing the dark side? Not wanting to go where I sense this story will make me go? And if I had any doubt, scanning through my email the same day of the two devil-related incidents above dispelled it, as one subject line in particular jumped out at me:

Writer, give in to your dark side

The email came from one of my favorite follows, Colleen M. Story's Writing and Wellness Blog. And lo and behold, the entire newsletter was devoted to this "dark side" issue, and specifically for writers. The articles? Here you go:

 The email was illustrated with another devil:

Devil girl

At this point, I'm like, OK, OK! Dark side! Got it! Thanks, Spirit! Paying attention now, I promise!

But ugh.

Didn't I already know this? 

Over the winter, my stepson turned us onto a movie he loved called Inside Out. It's a Pixar animated film, brilliantly done, and the gist of it is that [spoiler alert] the character you think is the hero, the one who's relentlessly positive, actually turns out to be the villain. At least of a kind. The movie does a remarkable job of illustrating how terrifically bad it is to suppress feelings because they're "negative." The filmmakers consulted psychologists in making the film. I highly recommend it for anyone who's convinced--or is tired of those who are convinced--that positivity is the only way to go, all the time. You're welcome.

There's a real benefit to healthy expressions of negativity. If someone's wronged or harmed you, swallowing your anger or outrage could actually make you feel complicit in their act, an enabler to your own victimization. Denial, sugar-coating the truth, false positivity--none of these things serve us well. 

But there's a balance to it.

One of many dead manuscripts I have in a drawer is something I finished back in 2007 called Meat: A Memoir. I gave it to the agent I had at the time, and, based on the title, she had high hopes. (She described me at a party once as "very talented and very intense.") She loved the short story collection she was then shopping around to publishers. But Meat? "I couldn't get through it," she told me.

It was all darkness, with very little light.

So that's my challenge, as both a writer and a human being.  To integrate my shadow and light sides, to allow them to coexist without judgment, suppression, or imbalance.

But how do you do that? Here are five ways I strike the balance:

  1. Be honest about your feelings. This starts with your own awareness: If something's bothering you, check in to see what exactly it is. Take a moment to get present; close your eyes; see what bubbles up. Writing can be a very powerful discovery tool as well. Sometimes I'll free-write about my project if I've got writer's block. This story is difficult right now because...
  2. Don't guilt or shame yourself into forced happiness. It's OK to feel angry, disappointed, sad, depressed... feel all the feelings. A spiritual leader I know once advised that sometimes, lying on the couch and sucking your thumb is exactly the right response to the situation. This goes for fictional characters, too. My best writing comes when I "torture" my characters and let them respond in very human ways.
  3. Don't guilt or shame yourself into silence. Talking about the darkness can help bring it into the light. I once had a writing teacher say that Shakespeare's work continues to resonate to this day because most of the characters are speaking at moments of high crisis. This is where the best fiction lies.
  4. Don't let anyone else guilt or shame you into silence. Whenever I get to the point where I feel someone is just not capable of hearing me, I stop the conversation and find other ways to express myself. Truths can be uncomfortable, and when they threaten status quo, there can be a tendency to silence the truth-bearer. But silencing someone is a power play that comes from insecurity. This goes for writing groups, too. If someone's critiquing your work in a way that feels silencing, it might be time to reevaluate whether the critique is constructive or even helpful.
  5. Don't wallow. If you find you've been wading in the darkness for some time, and you're far past the point of gaining insight from it, then it's time to get up off the couch and rejoin the world. But even then, don't do the things people want you to do but rather what brings you happiness. That goes for the writing, too. Like my dead manuscript example above, an all-dark world doesn't actually make for good storytelling. Without the victory, conflict can feel relentless and suffocating. 

What it comes down to is your shadow side and your dark side actually need each other.

Thanks to Alice Smeets for her lovely Ghetto Tarot and Colleen M. Story for her insightful essays. I hope you'll check out their work.

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