Nov 24, 2009

Writing About the Extraordinary

One of the best parts of being a nonfiction writing instructor is watching students transform over the course of a week as their stories come into focus and take shape. Not just because of the excitement that comes from watching a text emerge, but from witnessing the personal changes that takes place as they reach greater insights about what they’ve experienced and what it means in a larger, universal sense.

I had a similar experience while writing The Possibility of Everything. I spent twelve chapters explaining and analyzing my complete absence of faith and trust, both of which were shattered in 1981 when my mother died, and then, when I was within ten pages of finishing the book, I had what amounted to (for me) a revelation. In the middle of an otherwise innocuous sentence, I suddenly realized that if I hadn’t had at least a small amount of faith left I never would have agreed to travel to Belize at all.

It was my Dorothy and the Red Shoes moment, an illuminating insight that revealed a truth I’d been keeping a secret even from myself. I hadn’t strayed quite as far from my roots as I’d thought, and to me this was an emotional homecoming of sorts. Once I understood what it meant, I had to go back and revise some earlier sections of the story. The delivery of the manuscript was delayed by another week, but I think the final product is stronger because of it.

The journey my family took into the rainforest was life-changing, but so was the writing of the book. Because of both of these experiences, I’ve started teaching workshops for people who also want to write about their unusual, unconventional or just non-ordinary experiences in the hope that I can help them tell their stories in a believable manner and also discover new truths about themselves.

Next July at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival I’ll be offering a six-day workshop titled Writing About the Extraordinary. “Extraordinary” is defined broadly: it can be the story of an unexpected healing; a dramatic or unusual encounter; or a mystical story of transformation like the one in my bok. The ISWF online catalog will be posted in February and registration will begin soon after. If you’re interested in this one, I suggest committing as early as you can, since it typically fills up fast.

Even sooner, I’ve just been invited to join authors Joyce Maynard and Ann Hood to teach a weeklong workshop this February at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Joyce has been running this workshop for several years and I’m very excited to be part of it. It’s different from other workshops I’ve done, insofar that students can work with one, two, or three authors at once, and also participate in a larger community of writers. We’ll also be joined by YA Author Francesco Sedita and possibly another writer, too.

The dates for the Guatemala workshop are February 13-21. If you’re interested you can get much more info here, or by contacting Melissa at (Or by contacting me at

San Marcos la Laguna is a gorgeous, magical setting for writing, and the week offers the opportunity to get double or triple the instruction that most workshops offer. I’ll be there to work with students who have non-ordinary stories to tell, but I’m very happy to work with writers of more traditional memoir or personal essays as well. Plus, I’ll be taking a few exploratory outings during the week to look for native healers around the lake, including the renowned daykeepers who still keep time by the sacred Tzolkin calendar of the Maya, and you’re very welcome to join me on those trips.

Hoping to see some of you for either of these weeks!



Nov 9, 2009

Confessions of a Closet Mystic

As I've been traveling around the country, talking about the book and meeting readers, the number one question I hear is, "How much does Maya remember from your trip?"

Not "What does she remember from your trip?" or "Who does she remember from your trip?" but "How much?"

I find this a curious question, since I can't imagine what difference the quantity of a child's memories, nine years later, could really makes to a reader. So there must be a question behind this question, some impulse that makes people shape their inquiry this way even though there's another piece of information they really want to know.

I spent about the first six weeks of the tour trying to figure this out, and the other night at Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago, when an audience member asked the same question, an insight came to me in a rush.

I think people are asking this because what they really want to know is how much of the wonder and magic of early childhood gets carried into the pre-teen years and, by extension, how much of it might still survive in our adult consciousness today.

I'll try to explain.

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend and I was telling him how, despite all that happened to us in Belize, I'm still a skeptic at heart who applies a cynical eye to much that comes across my path.

He said, "Actually, I think you've got it backwards. I think this whole skeptic thing you've got going is just an act so people don't accuse you of being too woo-woo. I don't think you're a closet skeptic. I think you're actually a closet mystic but you're afraid to admit it to anyone, even yourself."

I immediately started crying when he said this, which means he's probably right.

Since the beginning of this tour, I've been trying to position myself as Everywomen, so that I can look out at an audience and say, "See! I'm actually very normal! I'm just like you!" in the hope that this will help them identify with my family and my story. When in fact, the more accurate statement might be, "I'm a normal person, yet I nonetheless have these beliefs. You're a lot like me!" Because I know that if you peek beneath the surface of most people, you'll find one or more stories of experiences they've had they defy easy explanation, or cross over into the mystical and cannot rely on common language for description. Whether it's a story of an incredibly coincidence that made you stop and say out loud, "What were the chances of that?" or a dream in which you received information you couldn't possibly have known when awake--it's something that can't be explained but that we nonetheless know can happen, because we experienced it ourselves.

So the reason I think so many people ask me "How much does Maya remember from your trip?" is not even because they want to believe that the open door of childhood can persist into the teenage years and beyond, but because they already know it can and are looking for validation through hearing our story.

Here's what I think: that we're a whole society of closet mystics who've been conditioned to believe only in the sanctity of scientific proof, yet who nonetheless carry within us the deep knowledge that a whole lot is going on that the scientific method cannot explain to our own satisfaction.

What would it take to get more of us to come out?

Nov 6, 2009

Reporting from the Sacbe

Dr. Rosita sent me an email the other day that said, "Still on the Sacbe?" and it made me laugh out loud. Sacbes were the ancient Maya white plastered roads that ran from town to town, and between key points within cities. Yes, I'm still on the metaphoric sacbe, until November 19, at which point I get to go home and...take a three-day nap.

I'm in the Portland Airport now, about to take flight number 15 of 18 in total. Last night I did event number 21 out of 29. Whew.

Seriously. It's the longest sacbe ever!! Walking from Chichen Itza to Cozumel would be faster. But probably, with the mosquitoes and snakes and everything, a lot less fun.

Nov 4, 2009

A View from the Bay

Yesterday in San Francisco, I appeared on a local daytime TV show called The View from the Bay. It's been a while--at least two years--since I've done any TV, and to say I was rusty was a big understatement. I arrived at the ABC studio on Front Street minus a clean copy of my own book (bad, bad author!) and without any prep or practice at all.

Amazingly, it went well anyway.

These are the nicest, and I mean the nicest, staff and hosts I've come across in a long time. Everyone from Spencer Christian, who was one of the interviewers (remember him from ??) to Jason the segment producer to the guy who miked me before I went on stage was friendly and funny. Rarest of all these days, they all seemed to actually like their jobs.

This immediately put me as ease, so when a surprise of a question--"What did you expect to happen in Belize?"--was tossed my way and I blurted out, "Well, nothing!" and we all cracked up, it actually came across (I hope) okay.

The show is now Reason #357 why I'm in love with San Francisco. The fact that it's such a writing city and the existence of North Beach restaurants rank way up there, too.

You can see the show online here.