Some writers grapple with being blocked; they spend hours paralyzed, gnashing their teeth, and downing large quantities of coffee, hoping to catalyze words with caffeine. Other writers can’t focus, can’t find the topic that maintains their interest, and they do everything possible to procrastinate putting fingers to keyboard. I don’t have either of those problems. I’ve made my living as a writer and editor for more than a decade. I love to write! And although I have periods of paralysis, I prefer to call them “pauses.” I trust that something is germinating and I believe it is my job to wait for it. My problem is much more pragmatic: selling my writing. Selling often involves talking, and talking about my work scares the bejesus out of me.
Last summer, I self-published a little book called Conversations with Mom: An Aging Baby Boomer, in Need of an Elder, Writes to Her Dead Mother. I self-published because I wanted my hands on every copy I delivered. I wanted total control. I wanted to know who was buying it so I could pack their book with my directed love and deliver it to the post office. The problem is that after I went through my entire mailing list, I’d only sold sixty copies, and I knew the only way to sell more was to start talking about the book.
During my first twenty-eight–minute panic attack—the entire length of the radio interview—I thought I was going to die. So when I booked a second interview, my goal ceased to be about spreading love and humor or even selling books; all I wanted was not to feel so terrified that instant death might be a relief.
“Why do you want to do a radio interview?” asks Charlie Hess, founder of a small nonprofit called Stay Inspired whose mission is to help inspired people inspire others. We are in the Madison Avenue offices of his day job—a company called Inferential Focus that gathers intelligence and detects changes and trends for big corporations. Charlie, some other Stay Inspired activists, and I are there to brainstorm about how an inquiry process to find one’s intention to do anything might be helpful to writers. In an attempt to explain this inquiry process that he’s been using to help senior executives and corporate teams, he’s offered to try it on me. “Why do you want to do an interview?” he’s asked.
“To sell books,” I answer, assuming this is obvious. I already explained that I’d rather poke a fork in my eye than do the upcoming interview, but I know it is no longer enough just to write, and I’ve been worried about money and survival since getting laid off from my cushy magazine job when the economy imploded, and, and, and . . .
“Why do you want to sell books?” he asks looking like a cross between the Buddha and a bespectacled Mr. Clean.
Money, I think, but this time I will go for something deeper. Why do I really want to sell books? “To connect,” I answer, feeling in my body that I’ve hit truth.
“Why do you want to connect?”
“To receive and give love.” I answer like an exhale.
“What’s in that?”
“Permission to be a flawed human being,” I answer. “That’s why I wrote the book. That’s what it’s about. That’s the whole point.”
“Why do you want permission to be a flawed human being?” asks Charlie. His expression is like still water.
“To know that it’s OK to be me.”
Long story short, I go into the next radio interview with the firm knowing that it is OK to be me, which leads to my feeling very grateful for the opportunity to be and express me, and my gratitude expressed makes both me and the interviewer happy, resulting in so much fun that I am shocked when the taping is over.
Jump cut: two months later, a frigid morning in a loft apartment up a creaky, near–ninety-degree staircase in a converted industrial building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We are a small group of writers and storytellers and we are sipping hot coffee as we begin the very first Stay Inspired intention-setting workshop. Several of us are stressed from our inability to make a living. Some are unsure about what they should write, whether it is worth the effort. And some are there with no stated need.
We spend a lot of time talking about the inquiry process, how it came out of Charlie seeing that his troubled son became focused and happy as soon as he stopped making plans but instead was directed by the intention to find out about himself . . . leading to a very satisfying career as a violin maker.
“The world’s operating system teaches us to aggressively make plans,” he explains to our motley group of people who usually stand on the outside, observing others. “But then the world doesn’t cooperate, so we re-plan. We redouble our efforts despite knowing that when man plans, God laughs. And we keep operating that way.”
Like the group members, Charlie Hess is a watcher. Directed by this, he created his very successful company dedicated to watching. And after years of watching, he no longer believes in the world’s operating system. Instead his mantra has become, “Hold your plans lightly and hold your intentions really strongly.”
“This process is not analysis,” he stresses. “It’s just an attempt to understand what is.”
“I can see that you’re a person who other people come to,” says a vibrant red-headed woman. “For us to do this, we have to come to you. Right?”
This is an intelligent group of experienced people, and she’s testing Charlie: Who is he and why should we have come? Should we try what he is offering?
“The questions I’ll ask evolve from trust,” answers Charlie. He explains that all he does is show up and make himself available. He’s here for us if we want to trust him to instinctually ask and ourselves to answer . . . or not.
As if to break the tension, an Irishman with the gift of poetic recitation contributes the wisdom of Lao Tsu:
Always we hope
someone else has the answer.
Some other place will be better,
some other time
it will all turn out.
This is it.
No one else has the answer.
No other place will be better,
and it has already turned out.
At the center of your being you have the answer;
you know who you are and you know what you want.
The red-headed woman volunteers that she wants to explore why she is so interested in stories about families—her own and other people’s—why she wants to work with people clarifying their family experiences.
“Why do you want to explore the family?” begins Charlie.
“Because of the pain in my own family.”
“What would exploring that do?”
“Make it worse.” (Big laugh.)
“Why do you want to make it worse?”
“Pain is good. . . . I learn about myself in pain.”
“Why do you want to learn about yourself?”
“I’m fascinating to myself. It never seems to end.”
“Why do you want to look at that trail?”
“Because I’m interested in what’s hidden, reoccurring patterns, those stories I keep telling myself. I want to tell myself new stories.”
“Why would teaching others help?”
“Because I feel very alive. At the same time that I help myself, I feel the impact on others.”
“What would that bring to them?”
“A sense of being more alive.”
“Why do you want them to feel that?”
“Because it’s much more fun. It’s awesome because I have so much pain, and that’s feeling alive.”
“So you want to feel alive?”
The statement of intention is obvious. Her wish to be alive “lands” like the final note of a symphony.
Finding our truest intention can give us a new perspective on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, explains Charlie. For writers, and maybe anybody in the arts, it can dissipate the stress and hysteria around producing and selling—as it did when it became the antidote for my panic attacks.
Not surprisingly, whether the issue is what story to write or how to deal with procrastination or an inability to make a living, many of the “landing” statements this day have to do with connecting—to oneself and others. We find the inquiry process to be simple—like a child’s incessant questioning—and pragmatic. We aren’t trying to discover our life’s purpose or reassess our reasons for being. We’re simply seeking our most essential intention in doing whatever we’re doing. And by doing the inquiry process with others, some of us go full circle, experiencing the connection or validation or sense of being heard or feeling of support that turns out to be our essential intention.
It is a magical process to do in a group, but it can also be done alone. The secret is to stay with the “why.” No matter how much we are instructed to focus on “why” questions, we all have a tendency to gravitate to the “how” of our issues. In the group process, Charlie allows this, patiently nudging us back to “why.” The “why” questions are so much deeper than “how” questions and useful in a deeper way. If we do the process alone, we will have to nudge ourselves. If we can stay with “why,” not only can we find personal clarity, but we can ask our story characters “why” questions to reveal the stories we want to write. Their and our answers expose immediate truths that, unlike a “how” plan to get from here to there, do not come out of the head. By articulating our intentions, we make it easier to act on them. Plans can change, but we can hold fast to our intentions. We can also use this exercise when we make decisions. The answer to “Does doing this serve my intention?” can deliver instant clarity in uncertain situations.
“My instinct is to look at what this experience offers as an alternative to the fear for survival reality that hangs over so many writers’ heads,” says Charlie Hess. “One step back and four forward is what I believe is offered. That, to me, is a very pragmatic application of the experience.”