Of all the questions I’m asked about the 50-for-50 Project, the one that comes up most frequently is definitely “Why the hair?”

Sometimes it comes up in the context of context—i.e., What the hell does shaving your head have to do with raising money for WriteGirl?—which I can understand. More on that in a bit, although since we’ve officially begun bean-spilling time, I may as well confess that the desire to shave (or at least, the desire to see what the hell was under all that hair) pre-dated the desire to do anything remotely selfless by a good eight years. I mean, what woman hasn’t sweated through a grow-out summer or written that check for single-process color AGAIN or, hey, seen another bald chick and wondered to herself what it would be like?

But far more frequently, Why the hair? might be loosely translated as What are you, crazy? So few choose baldness (and let’s face it, even the “bald by choice” crowd is more accurately described as “balder by choice”) that opting out of hair is seen as extreme. Why would you do voluntarily what sick people are dragged into kicking and screaming? (And I’m speaking of our friends in chemo, not casting aspersions on military recruits, religious orders, or even right-wing extremists. Although, well, you know.)

* * * * *

The party line for “Why the hair?” vis-à-vis a fundraiser for Girl Empowerment came from my friend Daniel Will-Harris, another writer/performer/marketing hybrid-freak like me. Figures, right?

I was still casting about for a way to quickly sum up a logical “why” when I threw out the problem to him in an email exchange we had way back in mid-July, just two weeks shy of Launch Day. What he wrote back was so logical, so obvious, that if I’d had time to do it between the eleventy-seven constant items on my to-do list, I’d have kicked myself.

Because it’s about what’s inside a girl’s head, not what’s outside.

Duh. I mean, DUH.

Delighted, I tucked away this nugget in my filthy miner’s pockets to satisfy curiosity in the metaphorical saloons of tomorrow, and did not think much more about the email—except, of course, to credit Daniel whenever I used the line, because I’m not an ass—until I pulled it up to check the date on it for this piece. And as I scanned it for the money phrase, I finally saw an equally important line below it:

How many men can you recognize just by their haircuts?

Sure there are the joke haircuts. And, ironically, the very serious “Kojak.”But really, how many?

Whereas I’ll bet that with absolutely no help from Google Image Search, you could come up with five or ten examples of women identifiable by haircut on the spot. Hell, I think Jennifer Aniston and Madonna might be responsible for five or ten iconic styles between them. Every day on Pinterest, I find yet another worshipful gallery of wish-list hair styled created by yet another woman. And so we’re clear on this, I’m not immune.

The more you think about it, the worse it gets: How many hours do we spend on our hair? And how many dollars? Even worse, how much emotion do we have tied up in it? How often do we judge—ourselves, our friends, complete strangers—on something as evanescent and arbitrary as hair? This person is [old/hip/stylish/frumpy]. To be [pitied/admired/envied].

Just how attached are we to our hair? Or, by extension (you’ll pardon the pun), to any of our other external markers?

Like most things I write on my blog, when I say “we,” I’m most definitely saying “me.” When she did my chart, my first-shrink-slash-astrologer warned me that with Venus in Leo, my obsession with my hair wasn’t going to end anytime soon. “You’ll always need to be happy with your hair,” she said.

Which is why I thought of her when I woke up last Wednesday morning and really looked at myself in the mirror for the first time. Could I be happy with my hair, I wondered, if my hair was no-hair?

Because unless I had completely lost my head along with the stuff on top of it, I was actually digging my no-hair, and was thinking of not-keeping it.

* * * * *

Trust me when I say that I have thought through the angles on this baby. I know that my no-hair could easily become as much of a “thing” as my hair ever was, if not more. Already, it’s my new toy: I have endless fun in the store, trying on this or that, seeing what works with the not-hair.1 While I have no hair, I have no less vanity. Indeed, I may have more: I actually like how I look! And I am not at all embarrassed that I like it!

So (a), it’s clear that I have not exactly evolved to a higher plane and, (b) it’s bizarre as hell, but there it is. Me, bald equals me, pretty. Go figger.

But it’s not all vanity. I’ve jokingly referred to the effect the shave has had on me as a “reverse Samson”, and I wasn’t kidding—I feel almost shockingly more powerful than I did pre-shave. Part of all this feeling good is doubtless a residual effect of accomplishment: raising more than $50,000 is a not-insubstantial achievement, and overcoming my fear of doing something I considered impossible is arguably a bigger one. (It’s the lesson I hope anyone looking through all this for one will find, anyway.)

The thing is, I am not sure what the thing is just yet. There’s so much to unpack about this experience that it could take me some time. More time than nature allows: hair grows fast. In a week, I’ve already gone from razor-smooth to sandpaper to velcro to enjoyable fuzz. Seriously—I’d be the hit of the rave these days, if they still had raves, and if I could be talked into going to one. My friend The Other Colleen, who was also bald for a time, warns me of weeks to come that will be filled with people wanting to rub my head like it was a Buddha belly or an especially soft cat.

For now, then—until I can figure this out, and until I can get some mileage from my surprisingly feminine new wardrobe—I’m sticking with not-hair. And when I find I have some answers, or perhaps that I’ve become a wee bit overly attached to turning heads (albeit for reasons of freakiness), or I’m through The Change, or I’m assured that it will grow in the luxurious shade of silver I’m longing for, then I’ll probably grow it out again.

Maybe. Possibly.

Unless, of course, I don’t.


Photo by the amazing Josh Ross. Full gallery of his “photobooth” shots of the head-shaving is here. There’s also a terrific series of “event” photos by the equally amazing Barry Schwartz. 

1Slim, clingy, simple, and dark, for starters; “patterned,” “structured,” and “outré,” my former go-to looks, now make me look like a tiny lesbian court jester. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Why you’re all invited to my birthday party

13 year olds are so not old

I turned 13 on Friday the 13th...long, long ago

Since reaching my majority, birthdays have been fraught for me.

It’s not so much because I’ve feared the rolling-over of the odometer to this or that number, but because I don’t know what to do with birthdays. And something tells me they need to be noted somehow, if only to maintain a loose grip on time.1

Now it’s easy enough to default to a special dinner out, or to coerce some friends into sponsoring one in. Even a big trip isn’t hard to wrangle, especially for the “zero” years. For my 36th, a rather theatrical friend even treated me to a novel celebration that included a one-on-one sharing of journal-style entries on my life, with a ritualistic ingestion of wine-soaked strawberries to punctuate each year.2

For my 43rd birthday, though, I finally took a real risk and threw myself a real party. I’d hosted one for my 38th, but it was strictly a small-potatoes, have-a-few-friends-up-to-the-new-pad sort of deal, the sort of affair where if only you, your boyfriend, and a few losers with nothing else to do of a Saturday night turn up, you can totally play it off as intentional.

This time, I went way out, for me, for then, on a limb. I approached some friends who owned a restaurant about taking it over for the night. I wore contacts and makeup and a, for me, even still, cute outfit. I bought a basket of disposable cameras3 for group documentation. Most critically, I invited my friends, all my friends, from all my various interests, rather than just the jocks or the burnouts or the West Siders or the East Siders or the nerds or the theater nerds or the other theater nerds. (I jest, but only slightly, the narcissism of minor differences is never so pronounced as it is when you get groups of performers together.) I invited guys I’d dated whom I was now friends with. In fact, I think the only people I didn’t invite were two guys who’d dumped me, and I still invited our mutual friends.

There were reasons for this rather dramatic change of affairs, this freaky, new-found bravery.

You see, in 2001, just two days before my last Big Round Number Birthday, the world blew up.4 A year later, on my 41st birthday, I was hospitalized with my Crohn’s onset: I got a colonoscopy and the nurses got my cake. Not exactly sweet times at the disco. (Although that bloody epiphany is still my all-time greatest birthday gift to date.) And the following year, I spent my birthday in Florida watching my 70-year-old father dying. Neither of which things, for the record, is any fun. At all.

Which is why, in 2003, 50 or so of my closest friends who’d never laid eyes on each other before found ourselves at an Argentinean restaurant in a Hollywood strip mall, eating SCD-legal food and drinking SCD-legal adult beverages at my “Breaking the Birthday Hex” party.

I was never so nervous before, never so happy during, never so gratified after any birthday thing I’d done, ever.

Not because my friends finally met in a gigantic DIY celebration of kumbaya spirit: after some perfunctory politenesses, people pretty much drifted off to whatever groups they self-selected for and I pretty much bounced from table to table for the balance of the evening. I was happy during and gratified after because I was nervous before, because in throwing this particular party in this particular way, I did something I was afraid of. It was absolutely the scariest and most wonderful gift I’d ever given myself.

From my perspective eight years further down the road, the Breaking the Birthday Hex celebration marked a huge step forward for me when it came to owning my life and integrating it into my life’s work. My bloody epiphany may have woken me up and the autobiographical play (with music!) that I’d co-written, produced and performed earlier that year certainly gave me a huge surge of confidence, but this was mine, all mine. It was a decision I made, not one that was thrust upon me, and it was my name alone on the marquee. Friends contributed, of course, there would have been no party were it not for my restaurant-owning friends. But it would have been Colleen’s Dud Party, not Colleen’s Restaurant-Owning Friends’ Débâcle, had things gone south.

I came out of that birthday feeling more like myself than I had since I was 10, and stronger than I had, ever. I think it’s no coincidence that less than a month later, I took my first of what has turned out to be many solo road trips, or that less than two months later, I launched communicatrix-dot-com. I’d finally started to live out loud.

But never REALLY loud. Since Breaking the Birthday Hex, I’ve plugged away at things assiduously, but quietly, as quietly as one can plug, anyway, when one’s plugging-away takes place principally via the internet. I have put my time and energies into building a body of work, this blog, then this newsletter, this column, this speaking (so called)-career.

Along the way, I’ve met a lot of people. A lot of very different people. Yes, we’re all special snowflakes, but like snowflakes, we cluster. You will not find much overlap between the attendees at a typical Toastmasters meeting (if there’s even one of those) and the people whose work populated the leaderboard of Dean Allen’s late, lamented Favrd. Nor will you find many, if any, of either of those two clusters hanging out at a Biznik meetup or talking shop on kernspiracy or hanging out on the actor boards. If there even still are actor boards in 2011.

For my birthday this year, I need everyone at the same metaphorical table, or at least in the same metaphorical Argentinean restaurant. I am as nervous about doing that as I am that my Big Scary Birthday thing will be a whopping and highly public flop. Which you’ll understand when you see what it is, next Monday. You’ll either be all “Wow! That is big and scary and I’M IN!” or you won’t. And if you’re not, make no mistake: it will flop. Highly and publicly.

Make no mistake: I want to succeed. Both because it will be awesome for a whole lot of people if I can pull this off and because I am one of the most competitive motherfuckers on the planet.

But even if it flops, I will have tried. No one will die. (Well, not because of this, anyway.) It’s almost guaranteed that a handful of people, young girls, whom I might argue are some of the most important people, period, will be better off. All of these are good things. Especially the part about people not dying. Almost always good when that doesn’t happen.

So hold a good thought for me. Really, less a thought for me in particular than for anyone out there beholding the Scary while doing it anyway. I don’t care who it is or how easy it looks from the outside, IT AIN’T. Even if you’re looking up. Maybe especially then. The landmarks become familiar as you circle the mountain upward but the air gets thinner and the path, narrower. That can be hard on older bones.

Did I mention I’m turning 50?


1This goes double for someone living as I do: childless, in endlessly sunny Southern California. With neither height notches on the doorframe nor seasons to mark it, one runs the risk of discovering that time is not, in fact, infinite juuuust as it’s about to run out. I’ve witnessed a few of those deathbed wakeup calls, brother, and they ain’t pretty.

2It was not at all unpleasant; it was also not at all something I’d even think about trying past age 35. And even then, make sure you have cab fare home.

3Kids, ask your grandparents.

4By sheer chance, I’d had to reschedule my 40th birthday to take place a month earlier: a madcap, Manhattan weekend with my then-boyfriend and my dad. It was a lovely trip and celebration. For obvious reasons, the actual day was rather grim.

Work in progress

graphic notes of mark silver's workshop from the World Domination Summit

You need a lot of things to sit down and write.

You need a chair, for example, to sit on. You need a pen or pencil and paper, or a typewriter and paper, or a computer and no paper. You usually need something a little more reliably horizontal than a lap to serve as a writing surface, a desk, a table, an ottoman, a step.

Then there’s the light that you need, natural, if it’s daytime, or artificial, if it’s not, or if it’s daytime in Portland, Oregon. You need heat sometimes, unless you are in Arizona (or my apartment) in the summer, in which case you need air conditioning (or a wet bathing suit and a series of strategically placed fans).

Depending upon who you are and what you’re like, you might also need complete quiet and privacy, plus a set of earplugs. Unless, of course, you need noise, a series of carefully crafted playlists, or streaming white noise, or, if you were someone completely unlike me, an orchestra of leaf blowers and grumpy neighbors. You might also need water, plain, coffee- or tea-flavored, and snacks. And a timer. And a distraction-free writing environment, and noise-canceling headphones to place over your earplugs. And another sweater, or perhaps a vest, or perhaps a sweater-vest. If you are a certain kind of writer, you might even need a lucky sweater-vest, and a special mug from which to drink your variously-flavored water and a special coaster to put it on, and a timer.

You will almost certainly need to have for your very own self a particular stretch of day that begins and ends at particular times, or else how the hell could you possibly get anything of any seriousness done, much less writing, for god’s sake? And you will need to be well-rested to greet this time of day, and sufficiently exercised, fed, watered, burped, pooped, scrubbed, and groomed. You will need to have ideas to write, perhaps that you have sketched out the day before in a special notebook, perhaps during one of those invigorating constitutionals, or upon index cards with a particular fineness of Sharpie, or upon coated white vertical surfaces with special erasable markers.

You will absolutely need the complete love and understanding of those closest to you, a door separating this room of your own from the rest of the household, a room somewhere entirely off the premises, preferably located close to some additional place that serves coffee- and tea-flavored beverages and provides tables and chairs to work at and wifi for breaks between the working.

You will certainly need all of these things. ALL of them, or how can you possibly be expected to produce anything of consequence? And that is all that is worth producing, right, something of consequence?

* * * * *

I am a planner. Like most of my character traits, it’s something I use to both propel myself forward and to hold myself back. (And that others have used both to praise and to diminish me.)

About a week ago, I had to give a talk rather unexpectedly, the kind of thing one cannot really prepare for.

I was part of a team of people helping out behind the scenes at a friend’s exciting new conference in Portland, and we had hit a snag: one of the scheduled speakers suddenly fell ill, he’s fine now, don’t worry, and had to cancel his talk and fly home, leaving us an empty hour to fill with content and less than 24 hours in which to do it.

Working together (which, more and more, I’m seeing is as critical to accomplishment as is working alone), we came up with an idea that would build on the message he would have delivered in his talk. The new plan became: show an excellent video of a shorter version of his talk that had been uploaded elsewhere; share a few personal stories that contained examples of the theme of his talk; coax from the entire body of attendees their own experiences with the theme of the talk; tie it all together with a magical, meta bow. Ta-da!

In theory, this was a simple, elegant solution that, while it could never replace the particular experience of having this speaker give his talk live, honored him and his work and the entire spirit of the conference in an interesting and (at least to us) inspiring way. For what greater thing is there than having your work carried forward in the work of others? None, that’s what. (Okay, sunsets, smiling babies and bunnies in cups, satisfied?)

In practice, this meant a whole lot of things lining up pretty seamlessly. I, for one, was terrified. While I only had to provide a measly two minutes of programming, and while I knew that the story of my bloody epiphany fit the theme, that really awful things can turn out to be really great, life-changing things, well enough, I had never told this story in less than five minutes. And it had taken me something like 20 hours to boil it down to that, plus another 20 or so hours of running it over and over like a madman. This time around, after dispensing with the rest of my commitments for that day and the next, I’d have roughly three hours of private time to cut the talk in less than half, and not particularly well-rested hours. Maybe someone who did this every day could do it with no problem, but I’d basically promised something I wasn’t entirely sure I could deliver. Not my favorite thing in the world.

But I had to do it, you understand. Not because anyone made me: I offered. Because I wanted to do it. Because we had to do something. Because I had to do it.

* * * * *

There have been two stretches of my life where I stopped writing: a nine-year break during my tenure as a professional ad ho and a four-year hiatus after I fried my brain and before I had my bloody epiphany.

Even during these times, I wrote privately. (Or as privately as someone who commits thoughts to paper and doesn’t destroy the evidence later can be said to write.) My writing was sporadic, dull and repetitive; I wrote to release things no one else would listen to, things so tedious they bored even me. I did it to stave off doom, not to stay sharp against a time when I might be again willing to step up to the plate and swing in front of God and everyone. Still, the fact remains that I wrote: hand moving across a page, over and over again.

* * * * *

At the same conference I ended up delivering my small, semi-improvised talk, I had an experience in one of the sessions that will change forever the way I think about my work. Almost offhandedly, before dispatching us to do one of his really useful exercises designed to help you do better work, Michael Bungay Stanier said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but not much, “The first time you tell your stories, they suck.” (Is it any wonder I loved Michael immediately?)

I reflected briefly on this nugget, decided to go with a known quantity, then turned to my partner…and proceeded to tell him the most boring, uneventful version of a pivotal moment in my life I have ever told.

So apparently, the fourth, seventh and ninth time you tell your stories, they can also suck.

My partner then told me his story. It was the first time he’d told it to anyone. It was long, winding and looped back on itself. I was riveted all the way through, and cried more than once.

If I had not had 10 years of acting study, I would not have understood why, but I have, and I did: he was completely present for all of his mess. He did not worry about nudging the pieces of his into some kind of tidy shape; it was his life, and it was untidy, with no clear arc, no neat lesson. But clearly, he had spent a good deal of his life really taking things in and reflecting on them, reading, being present. He had lived the kind of life my well-meaning father might have called unfortunate, the life of a person who was clearly capable, but who couldn’t get his act together, which is what a person needed in the end, to make it in this world.

My father is dead now so I cannot tell him this, but I can tell you: because of this stranger I did a five-minute exercise with, I will be able to tell a story that has thus far eluded me, and in a way that might actually land with someone else.

Also, this is as good a definition of “making it” as I think one can come up with.

* * * * *

I used to think there came a time when, if you worked long and hard, all the strands of everything you’d done and learned wove themselves together and magically transformed you into an Extraordinary Being of Knowing: kind, capable, wise, endlessly patient and a delight to be around. You, only grown up.

Now I think that if there is such a you, it is there all along, gently poking and prodding you to get on with your business. And that if you do enough business, eventually you get to meet the extraordinary person who was there all along, patiently waiting for you to stop your whining about wanting to be of service and log your miles/build up enough muscle to be of real, reliable service.

So yeah, You, Grown Up has lived longer and knows more. You, Grown Up has logged the miles and can deliver on command. But the only reason You, Grown Up is able to be of use (much less someone anyone is delighted to be around) is because You, Grown Up has managed to stay open and available, to tolerate change and mess, and to yuk it up a little instead of taking life so seriously. The things you can do right now with zero training (albeit sometimes in very small amounts, and often only when external forces back you into a corner).

The little talk I had to give turned out fine. Even if it hadn’t, though, it would have turned out fine, just not the way I’d envisioned.

Show up, show up, show up. Raise your hand when volunteers are requested. Try to remain focused on the moment and unattached to outcome.

All work is work in progress.


Image by Armosa Studios via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. (Don’t know who did the graphic notes of Mark Silver‘s workshop, but they’re dandy.) UPDATE: The visual notes are by Cynthia Morris, who wrote about drawing them at WDS. Thanks to Melody Watson (and her extraordinary comment) for pointing it out.

Friction, dread, and arriving “having had”

hand-painted sign

I’ve been in Portland for a week now. It’s a beautiful time of year here, cool and damp, studded with the usual rare bits of sunshine, but everything is in bloom, and people seem even happier than usual when the sun does come out.

As I did last year, I’m staying in a wonderful little house in a highly walkable neighborhood. So much so that while I have a car at my disposal, thus far I have chosen to walk1, to the grocery store, the world’s greatest bookstore, to meet with friends. Oh, yeah, I apparently have friends here, and we do stuff. A lot. Eating, mostly, but all the walking means I can eat with impunity. I’ve walked more miles and done more stuff and seen more people here in a week than I’ll do in L.A. in a month. All in all, it’s been a pretty excellent so far.

Yet if you had climbed inside my head for the two or three weeks before coming up to this place, this place I like so much that I’ve transplanted myself here for 2-4 weeks every year for the past four, you’d have been certain that I planned these trips up north as some kind of punishment. The nearer my departure date drew, the more my anxiety level rose. I had too much going on in L.A. to leave right now. I had no good reason to go, except that I’d promised; I’d sound like an idiot when people ask me why I’m here, just like I do when they ask me what I do. I’d be missing things: my colorist appointment; my own business mixer; my stuff. (It’s always about me and my hair and my stuff.)

Never mind those previous trips that I’d dreaded had turned out to be delightful learning and growing experiences. This one would suck. I’d be lonely. I’d be adrift. It would be a disaster.

* * * * *

You might write off this anxiety as a fear of failure, and trust me, that’s there in spades, but my anxiety and resistance extends far further than that. Sometimes it seems like I approach anything that presents any potential friction with a level of dread.

There are the tedium-based frictions: brushing my teeth; cooking vegetables; washing my hair.

There are the rejection/failure-based frictions: returning phone calls. Actually starting projects I am contracted to do. Following up with people who have expressed interest in doing new projects.

And there are the reminders-of-my-own-incompetence-based frictions: practicing guitar, doing my Nei Kung exercises, drawing, small-talk-socializing.

But the King Daddy of them all is writing. Writing is tedious. You are never guaranteed success. Even when you get good at it, you suck at it. There is little I dread more than sitting down to write.

As luck would have it, however, there is nothing I want more than to be a really good writer. And until you can go to the Really Good Writing Store and load up on that shit, you’re sort of stuck with plain old practicing. Which means writing, and plenty of it, and with serious, focused intent on improvement.

* * * * *

Success doesn’t help much to alleviate this mindset, by the way. As they say when you invest, past performance is not indicative of future results. If you’re looking for guarantees, the universe and your broker are fresh out.

On the other hand, success is not entirely useless. It’s proof that you managed to finish something once before. And it can keep other people momentarily occupied while you get on with the business of doing the next thing.

* * * * *

There are several things I do to keep myself writing. One of them is writing here, on the blog. It’s much easier writing privately, in morning pages or in the Google Wave with Daveâ„¢, but hanging my own ass out to dry in public helps focus my energies and inspires me to bring my “A” game in a way that cracking open a spiral notebook does not. (Although I still do the other, private kinds of writing. Because really, if you want to be a writer? Just writewritewritewrite. Like a motherfucker, as Sugar says.)

For this same reason of using the public to keep me honest and on schedule, I write a monthly newsletter. It’s a different flavor of focus: less “self-help”-y, if you will, but no less helpful.2 Ditto, the monthly column for actors: it’s useful in an entirely different way to write about what you know for different kinds of audiences.3 You can take classes. You can buddy up and swap stories. But outward-facing writing with accountability is just a sensible and grownup way of working at the thing you want to get better at.

Does it mean any of this writing is easy to do? No. Well, sometimes, for stretches. But not as much as you’d think.

There’s always some level of dread involved. There is dread because there is friction. There is friction because there are stakes. No stakes, no dread.

Once you’re really in, there is always some level of dread. Ergo, there must always be some form of dread management.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful term in the film & television industry, “show up having had.” As in, show up on set for your call time tomorrow having had some damned thing or another to eat, because there won’t be any there when you arrive, sucka, nor time to eat it, neither.

You can, of course, opt not to eat beforehand. But you’ve been forewarned: food won’t be coming for a while, and you’ll be expected to work in the meantime. Without stopping to shove a sandwich in your face. And, if you’re “talent”, certainly without doing anything that will hamper Hair & Makeup or Wardrobe as they try to do their jobs. Can you work without food in your stomach?

I never thought much about “having had” while I was working as an actor, except perhaps that the production company was a cheap bastard. Which may or may not have been true, money had started getting tight by the time I got out. Really though, productions have always been expensive, because it’s always going to cost a lot to get 150 people together in the same place for a limited time to get one thing done. “Having had” was but one way of keeping the production running smoothly. All kinds of contingencies are planned for with a shoot: how we’ll rearrange the shots in case of weather, in case the baby doesn’t cry on cue, in case there’s a truck jackknifed on the I-5. Producers are professional dreaders; they worry in advance, to head as many worries as they can off at the pass.

Commercials (and movies, and TV shows) may suck when they’re done, but thanks to the professional dreaders, they get done.

* * * * *

If you have ever done improv, watched improv, or heard about improv, chances are you know about the foundation of improv: “Yes, and….” No matter how implausible the scenario you are confronted with, you embrace it and build on it.4

Yes, your hair is on fire, and fortunately, I have brought a bucket of water in my gigantic rubber purse. Yes, we’re at the top of K-2 in disco pants, and look: there’s John Travolta! Yes, and so on.

This is (mostly) how I handle my nutty little fears and phobias. Yes, I don’t want to brush my teeth, and I’m going to just fire up the Braun and see what happens, anyway. On particularly fraught days, I’ll play additional games with myself: I’ll just go in the bathroom. I’ll just pull the toothbrush out of the holder. Etcetera. You hear runners talk about this sometimes, that just getting the shoes on and stepping outside is often enough to get them over the hump, off and running.

I seek out ways to reduce friction nowadays. Sometimes it’s washing, peeling and prepping my veggies as soon as I get them home.5 Sometimes it’s placing multiple reminders in the calendar about shopping for Girl Drag before a big event (I resist my Girl Drag more and more). DVDs help get Mt. Laundry folded and put away. Arriving at conferences a day before the madness begins helps me ramp up to the crush.

With writing, it basically boils down to keeping my ass in shape, then parking it in a chair from a certain hour to another hour so my hands can make the clackity noise. The pile of supposably good writing grows incrementally, day by day, week by week. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but that’s been my experience so far. By all means, reduce friction where you can here, too. Make sure you are fed and watered (not too much). Get a good night’s rest. Have your public-facing stuff, your accountability groups, your coaches and classes, your blah blah blah. Then sit down and write.

No matter what you do, the writing will probably hurt a little. There’s only so much friction to be removed.

Dread, and write. Get slowed to a crawl, and write. Write write write. (And please, feel free to substitute “parent” or “paint” or “calculate” or what you will for “write”.)

The dread makes sense. But it alone can’t make you stop.


1Or take the bus. Portland also has an outstanding public transit system, possibly the best feature of which is that they refer to those 65+ plus as “honored citizens.” Something to consider when planning one’s retirement.

2Two points here. First, re: the “self-help” moniker, I wrestle with this all the time, as some of my friends know. In fact, I had a long discussion here in Portland this weekend with a writer whom I greatly admire about how conflicted one feels, being labeled as a self-help writer. On the one hand, it’s the thing you hope for most, that your writing “lands” and actually helps someone in the process. On the other, well, come on. The genre is neck-in-neck with fantasy sci-fi and business for crap writing.

Second, writing the newsletter is just as helpful to me as a writer as writing the blog is these days. It forces me to organize my thoughts differently, and that’s always good, to be able to organize your thoughts in different ways. But the newsletter itself is arguably more helpful to readers, or more readers, anyway, than this blog is. It’s more straightforward in the way it serves up tips and ideas; the blog is more elliptical. So if you’re looking to be a better communicator and you don’t want to dick around with “self-help”-y stuff, by all means, quit reading this silly blog and subscribe to the newsletter.

3Recently I also began blogging for my wonderful friends and clients at the ASMP. Only a couple of posts so far, but writing for photographers, like writing for actors or designers, is a different game and keeps me sharp. Highly recommended, writer-types.

4Nothing beats a real, live class for learning the value of improv, but Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom runs a close second, and is a delightful read, to boot.

4I’ve done this off and on for most of my adult life, but reading this post on barriers by Ramit Sethi really helped me recommit to this simple but effective practice. Bonus: it may help you recommit to improving your finances as well.

The danger of 10% evil

tiny metal gargoyle figurine

Many years ago, I was in the world’s worst acting class.

Its badness was made possible by its goodness. Much like a relationship where you’re slowly gaslighted into madness until a gigantic Acme mallet (or Joseph Cotten) shows up to snap you out of it, about 90% of what went down was fine, excellent, even.

Which is precisely why the remaining 10% was so dangerous: plenty of inert matter to make the poison go down smoothly.

* * * * *

Do you think about money often? I think about it quite a bit, just before I shove the thoughts from my head in a holy panic.

My lifelong attitude toward money mimics my childhood attitude toward adulthood: Lots of power; too much scary. RUN! The thing is, of course, you really can’t avoid either. Or at some point, you just realize that avoiding them is more exhausting than giving in. And when you do finally settle into one or the other (or both) a bit, when you start handling your money with respect or learning to delay gratification in favor of prudence and responsibility, you see that it’s not really dollars or years that you’re scared of; they’re just dollars and years.

You’re scared of that part of you that you think is incompetent. Or vain. Or maybe flat-out evil, you devil, you.

You’re scared that the small, not-so-good part of you will override the big, pretty-okay part of you and ruin everything. That you will be left alone, reviled and ridiculed for the incompetent/vain/flat-out-evil devil you are. That you will die.

It doesn’t matter that it won’t, you won’t, and you probably won’t for a long, long time. That 10% of you puts on a really convincing show.

* * * * *

One thing I learned in that horrible-wonderful acting class was that a well-drawn character wants something more than anything else, and over the course of a well-played scene, will use every trick in her personal playbook to get it. (We call the wants “intentions” and the tricks used to get it “tactics.” Now you can impress your actor friends with your inside knowledge.)

Here’s the conundrum, the strongest want is nothing without an equally strong obstacle in the way of that want: Al Pacino thwarting Robert DeNiro in Heat; the survivors racing against the water in The Poseidon Adventure; Ray Milland battling himself in The Lost Weekend. It can exist without or within, but if you take away the immovable object, the unstoppable force whizzes frictionless through nothingness, fizzling out somewhere far, far past our interest in watching it. The tension between the two is what fuels the creativity of the characters and heightens the suspense.

More tension, better show.

No tension, no show.

* * * * *

I’m working on a huge (HUGE) project for my upcoming birthday this September. It’s the kind of project that could be astonishing and life-changing and crazy, crazy fun if it comes together, not just for me, but potentially for a lot of other people, you included. And if it falls apart, of course, it is one of those things that will make me, and only me, look stupid. The flavor of fail I am more afraid of than anything.

Here’s the hilarious (and predictable) part: as the deadline for each part of the project has approached, I’ve balked. You’re coming off of a five-month Crohn’s flare. You need to focus on your business. You’ll have to call in every favor you have and rack up debt in the favor bank, to boot. The scale is ridiculous. The time frame is insane. You’re insane, even if you pull it off, there’s no assurance it will make any kind of difference.

All of these things are true. Mean to say, but no less true for it.

But what is also true is that so far, all the drama has come from me, myself and I playing out a three-person scene; the universe has been an extraordinarily compliant scene partner.

So it’s 90% good that I’m 10% evil. Otherwise this sucker might never get liftoff.

* * * * *

I don’t know how you discern between regular shadow and the toxic kind in the moment. These sorts of calculations almost always benefit from some time and/or distance. Seth wrote an excellent book about knowing when to stop (and when to plow through) that I should probably re-read. Byron Katie came up with those four questions that do a pretty good job of rooting out untruths.

If you put a gun to my head, I’d say the danger of 10% evil crosses over from frisson to “Warning, Will Robinson!” when you feel yourself starting to disappear. The point of danger, this kind of danger, is to make you stronger. There were people in that horrible acting class who were well served by it. I was one of them for a while, and then I wasn’t, and then I left.

But I don’t think you should wish away evil any more than you should wish away time. Instead, wish for the alertness to stay on your toes. Wish for help from the muse finding creative ways to slay your dragons. Wish for courage. Wish for vision.

Then get that show on the road.


Image by downhilldom1984 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Poetry Thursday: All the things I wear because the ugly is too awful to bear

nearly-naked protester atop statue at G20 summit Toronto 2010

I wrapped myself
in layers
to keep out the wind
and the rain
and the cold-hearted,
to protect my delicate belly fur
from brushing up
against stinging bitches,
to fend off hailstorms out of nowhere
and guard against shark attacks,
sermons, rabies, catcalls,
and random acts of insomnia.

I outfoxed the bad
and the maybe-bad
and the looks-bad-from-here
and the ba-a-ad bad bad I heard about
from a guy who knows a guy,
with my elaborately constructed fortress
of guile, goose-down, faux fur,
Real Housewives, rants, mantras,
uplifting quotes, strategically-placed sarcasms,
and a cotton-rayon shell
with a touch of Spandex
for movement.

it got hot in there
and not a little smelly.

Which is how
on one of your more tempting summer days
I found myself unzipping a jacket
just for a moment.

And after
the toxic cloud of sour grief
and withered possibilies
and tears
and rage
and confusion
was finally carried off
by a kindly breeze
I think I heard a bird.
Or maybe it was the ocean.
Or maybe it was a poem,
finally whispering softly enough
so I could hear her,
“Off…take it all off.”

That was weeks ago,
or maybe months,
or was it yesterday?

No matter.
I am down to the last fourteen layers
now, and peeling fast.
Two sweaters forward,
one t-shirt back.

With any luck,
I will die
completely naked.


Image by Jason Hargrove via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Why I never pass up an opportunity to quote Beverly Sills

upward shot of someone climbing steep rock face

A good friend of mine recently decided to quit smoking.

She’d quit before, which obviously means that the quitting didn’t quite “take.” So this time, she decided to quit differently.

First, she’s investing money in the deal. For them amongst us what is on the cheap side, money can be a powerful motivator. As my friend said, “I’ll be damned if I’ll spend this much and not quit.”

Second, she’s spending it on hypnotherapy. I quit the cheap way, but I’d raved to her about my experience with using hypnotherapy to get back on the diet for my Crohn’s last fall: one session, one recording that I listened to for about two weeks, and done. I still look at potatoes or rice or a McDonald’s drive-thru sign with longing, but the impetus to go for it is gone. It was a singular and fascinating experience which I’ve not shut up about since.

* * *

Hypnotherapy done right is part of a larger self-excavation process: getting at the “why” sandwiched between the smart, true part of you that doesn’t want to smoke or eat or do crack and the part of you that has, until now, reached for a cigarette or french fry or crack pipe regardless. My friend’s “why” is her business, but anyone old enough to want to read this blog has more than a passing familiarity with the many, many shapes and sizes a “why” can take. “Less-than” Why. “Angry” Why. “Social Anxiety” Why. “Why, Oh” Why, a.k.a. “Woe Is Me” Why.

If any of these look like variants on “Fear” Why, it’s because they are, of course, every last damned one of them. My god, what won’t fear stop us from doing? Or keep us doing, depending on whether the action is salubrious or not. Based on my own experience in talk therapy and reading eighty bajillion self-help books, it’s pretty clear that fear is the biggest “why” there is. Fear lies underneath feeling less-than, underneath social anxiety and anger and woe. If there’s one thing I’d like to impart about fear, it’s that if you scratch pretty much any kind of yuck, you’ll find fear under there somewhere.1

My friend knows from fear. She’s lived long enough to experience several expedient fear delivery systems, plus she’s done time on the couch. She gets it. But when you start looking at your fear through the finely-ground lens of doing one monumental thing, when you slow down and take the long way home, you learn a few things you didn’t know. The depth of your fear, for starters, and a peek under the tent at a few other ways fear might be stopping you that you didn’t even realize. It’s fascinating stuff, this just paying attention. And an excellent value proposition, so much more bang for your buck.

Even if it is painful and dull and embarrassing. Which, if you’re spending a significant amount of time and money, there’s a very good chance it will be.

* * *

There is a very strict order of steps involved in quitting smoking this particular way. There’s no jumping ahead, no skipping steps. Instead, there is an intake date, an agreed-upon quit date (or “start of your smoke-free life” date for you optimists) and a whole lot of exercises between. A lot of looking, a lot of thinking, a lot of noticing. My friend said she was ready to quit a week early. Her hypnotherapist said sorry, but she was not.

* * *

Which brings me around to the title of this here piece. My favorite quote and main mantra for the past four or so years, well, other than THAT one, has been this one:

There are no short cuts to any place worth going.

It is attributed to the American opera singer Beverly Sills, and if the “opera singer” part of that last phrase wasn’t enough, read a bit of her history and you’ll know that the lady knew whereof she spoke. Whether the ass-end of your proposed journey is being healthier, happier, wealthier or wiser, there’s no getting there faster. 10,000 hours. Rinse/repeat. Park your ass under the Bodhi tree, bub, and make sure you do plenty of wandering first.

If it feels a little grim, I assure you that it is far less so than the mood I’m usually in when I conjure up this line. Remember: practice is painful. Change is excruciating. Feeling stupid feels awful. (To me. Although if they didn’t to you, you’d probably have clicked away long ago to see what was happening on Facebook.) Sure, I could find a happy-happy saying full of cheer and sunshine and optimism. But you know what using it under those circumstances would entail?

Skipping steps.

On the other hand, when you resign yourself to this way of thinking, or rather, when you surrender to it, the way women of grace do with time and gravity, you bring yourself back to plumb pretty quickly. Of course I feel this way, you realize. That is what feeling is! The depictions of change we see in movies and books blip over a lot of this stuff, or make it look sort of sexy-frustrating, with lavishly-produced montages or deftly-condensed metaphors which are, wait for it, boring and time-consuming to produce, at least for long stretches. As I said in last month’s newsletter2, when you see something good, you’re not seeing the mountain of shit someone shoveled to uncover it.

* * *

My friend Brooks3, who calls himself a clutter-buster, uses the simplest process possible to help his clients to let go of things that may once have served them well but now are serving only as impediments. He has them hold up one item at a time and asks the same question of each one: “Do you need to keep this, or can we let this go?”

This is how you went from being a person who’d never experienced smoking to one who could not imagine life without cigarettes. This is how you get from “good” to “bad” and back again. (And for the record, “back again” isn’t necessarily better, but done thoughtfully, it’s far richer.)

Look, I am doing this. Why am I doing this?

Can I let this go?


1With “and EVERYONE is scared about something, even people you’d never dream of.” For more cogent and inspirational stuff around this, read Krishnamurti and my friend Ishita’s monthly magazine.

2It’s not up on the archives page yet, but if you subscribe, the nice Emma robot will automatically send you a copy.

3Brooks has a really good post up today on how he clutter-busts over the phone.

Image by mariachily via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.