This may come as a surprise to people who know me and my work with the Wild Writing practice, where for the last 20 years I have taught people to write as poorly as possible and to release the parts of themselves that they use to impress others, but I don’t like making mistakes.
I have built an entire career modeling how to show up as our authentic bed headed selves, messy, transparent and real, on the page and off. My students might tell you that I’m good at it, but it doesn’t come easily for me; the need to impress and be loved is so strong, and which is why I teach so many classes a week. I’m a really slow learner.
The Wild Writing practice is in service of authenticity and what it means to show up on the page naturally, without effort and edifice. To show up without mask and armor, and to let people see who we actually are as human beings so that we can make real contact with them through our writing. We do this on the page, but over the years, what we do on the page leaks into our lives and if we’re lucky, we begin to show up more authentically and naturally there too.
After 25 years of doing the work on the page, I’m happy to say that I’m finally getting better at messing up more in real life. Sometimes it’s expensive, like when I watched the metal lemon squeezer slip down the sink and into the garbage disposal last month. Or how I ignored the front door key that kept sticking, and how one day the key finally broke off in the lock and I had to call the locksmith on a Sunday. Those kind of mistakes are my least favorite.
When I was putting together the Wild Writer Teacher Training, a five-month course where I’ve been teaching people how to become stronger writers, run Wild Writing classes and build their businesses as writing teachers, I slaved over the notes for months and months, trying to tweak the experience just right so that it would be perfect. I’d never carried a class for five months and I’d never asked for that much money for one of my offerings. The fear of not having a perfect training scared the shit out of me.
Luckily I’m surrounded by wise folks, and at least one of them reminded me that while I could try to understand a lot of things before the class started, there would be a whole body of the work that I’d have to learn while I was running the class – things that I’d have to learn on my feet, in front of the students.
The first few months of the training were amazing. I loved teaching leadership. I loved working with these 10 amazing ladies. The whole thing was intuitive for me, easy. During the first three-day workshop I led, I had 17 pages of notes that I had buried myself in for months. As the circle of women gathered at my house in Northern California, I picked up the notes, scanned them and then I barely picked them up again for three days.
The work was in my bones.
Then, last month I finally ran into the area where I had the least amount of skill, the place where I was about to humble myself and show up quite imperfectly in front of others.
The focus of the weekend was on self-care, and while I do know something about it, I was about to learn a lot more.
It didn’t help that in an effort to make the weekend financially easier for people who were flying to California for the second time in a few months, I invited everyone to stay at my house, something I didn’t tell my teacher friends about because I knew they’d gasp and tell me that I was nuts.
It would be cozy. We’d eat together, cook together, we’d go family style. We’d be together 24/7 for one whole weekend. A big slumber party. And of course I couldn’t have invited seven nicer women to stay with me. Their offers to help were endless. When Traci got to the house I gave her a rake and she cleaned up the garden. Liz was in the kitchen making coffee. Angie helped the caterer bring in the food. Fran made sure we got up and danced when the writing got really heavy. Kristin, Tina and Gibby were a three women cleaning team.
And as wonderful as they were, what I needed was something only I could have given myself.
Time alone away from people so I could get quiet and go blank.
A bed – yes – I gave one of the lovelies my bed and bedroom and ended up on a cot in the office where I slept on my back, arms folded over my chest like I was in a casket because there was no room on it to flip.
A helper. Running from the teaching table to making coffee, and back again, making mental lists in my head about dinner and when I’d have to drive to Berkeley to get it, didn’t give me the space to do the only thing I was really there to do. Teach.
As generous as I meant to be, and as lovely as these ladies were, filling my house with students kept me in a teaching conversation for three solid days, when what I’m sure would have made me a better teacher was an episode of Game of Thrones at the end of each night.
It turns out that teaching when you feel stressed and a little dead feels like stressed, dead teaching. And no amount of coffee will make you more brilliant.
And these aren’t just lessons learned after the fact. I was learning them in full view of my students who watched me fade by the hour, who experienced me a little less present and at moments a little tense. And somehow – I don’t know how – maybe all those years of trying to be transparent on the page – I used everything I was learning about self-care and the lack of it, to teach from on our last day together. I opened the kimono and I showed them what was happening, where I had dropped the ball in terms of self-care.
I did it because they’re going to be teachers. Because they may mean to be as generous as I meant to be, and because they may leave themselves out of the equation as I did, thinking that they don’t need space and time for themselves. Thinking they can run on fumes. Thinking that taking care of other people’s needs and abandoning their own is a good thing to do.
It’s not, and I’m learning this slowly, but I am learning.
Good things happened, of course. A lot of rich teaching happened. We wrote our asses off. The women bonded. They loved waking up together, making coffee, having more time to find out about each other’s lives. We danced. It was actually a beautiful weekend – and maybe even more so because I opened the kimono and showed them what I was learning through my mistakes.
Be sure to check out my new 27 Wild Days eCourse.