Can we as women embrace the divine feminine within, while also demand to be taken seriously as an intellectual equal of strength and character? Most of my female friends will say, “Hell yes.” But I’m not so sure that my male friends will agree (amongst each other). A woman in a bikini who looks sexy, is also a person who may write articles for the New York Times, or creates legal briefs, or who rocks a baby to sleep. She is a person of infinite depth and has found a way to embrace her health, vitality and beauty, without negating her intellect, strength, and roles within family and society. It’s a delicate balancing act. Just because we want to be taken seriously, doesn’t mean we have to hide our beauty. It is not our fault that desire creates a beast within some men. That’s like saying a girl deserved to be raped if she wore a short skirt. Yet, somehow, I still feel that it is our duty, as women, not to feed that beast and to refrain from behavior that spurs affairs and/or abuse.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. It is wonderful to feel sexy, healthy, vital, energetic—at any age. I also know that whenever I post a picture in a sexy yoga pose, the men who ‘like’ the picture aren’t necessarily reading the Rumi quote or noting my yoga class schedule below it. Right? Women feed into the objectification that is rampant. We do. But that doesn’t mean we deserve to be lied to, cheated on, manipulated, or God forbid, drugged and date-raped. There’s a huge leap in the male thinking brain from: she’s hot, to: I can, and am entitled, to use her as a physical toy and throw her away after. A good friend of mine told me yesterday that her first date after her divorce resulted in being rooffied. She woke up in her ‘date’s bed, not remembering a thing. She had only had one glass of wine at the restaurant. LORD. She’s in her fifties. This sort of thing happened a lot during my college years and my graduate school years in New York. I heard stories from friends often and I once ended up in the hospital after someone roofied me. Luckily, I wasn’t raped, but I passed out, hit my head in a restaurant bathroom and the cops were called.
I am taking a big sigh as I write this.
Have we not evolved?
I want my nieces to grow up into strong, self-confident, independent women who unabashedly embrace their sense of beauty and vitality. Just because many men want to hook up and treat beautiful women like objects, doesn’t mean we have to hide and cover up either. We just need to be smart, stay alert, and not drink during first dates or put ourselves knowingly into harms way. (See my interview with Pat Allen, relationship expert, best-selling author of Getting to I DO and expert on Millionaire Matchmaker)
Pat, who was actually my therapist during my ex-husband’s affair, has been saying for years, what DeVon Franklin re-iterates in his new book The Truth About Men. That is, that men are not wired for monogamy. They have a lust problem. Not all men cheat, clearly, but all wrestle with desire, even when in love with their wives. Their lust struggle doesn’t go away. DeVon refers to male lust as “the Dog.” And in his book, lust is about power, as much as it is about female conquest. If a man can commit to his profession full-heartedly, he can commit to a woman and family, he explains. Society and the lack of good male or father figure role models, makes is easy for successful men, especially, to not look in the mirror and to continue to indulge the dog, even within committed relationships. An interesting side-note, men who cheat, according to DeVon, are those who were abandoned by fathers or had poor relationships with fathers. Women who cheat, however, typically have put up with too much abuse or neglect and leave a relationship. Men who cheat, are often not in bad relationships at all. Hmmm…So how, as women, do we navigate that one or the fear that it instills when we begin a new relationship?
Well, I don’t have an answer. I do know that really good men cheat and feel horrible about it after. But it breaks my heart when women, who have been cheated on, or lied to, ghosted, or made to feel lesser than by a man in their life, take it personally, by thinking they somehow aren’t worthy, deserving, or sexy, etc. And some men, justifying their bad treatment of women, can say horrible things. I know. I heard them, to the point that I believed that I wasn’t sexy or beautiful during my divorce. Yoga and my yoga trainings saved me and helped me to embrace my physicality as well as my spirituality and get back into my writing. I shifted gears and stopped worrying about what was said or done. I’ve since let that shit go. I don’t need to prove anything, but I do want to feel good for myself and remain vital, healthy, so I can be a strong single mom for my boys.
I adore Reese Witherspoon, my fellow southerner, who is strong, and beautiful and calls into question just what a powerful businesswoman is supposed to look like. When I was in college I heard a lot folks saying I was the character from Legally Blond. I covered the legal beat at the Red and Black newspaper at the University of Georgia. I was in a sorority, had long blond hair, wore make up, yet still wrote essays and interviewed supreme court judges for public radio and slept on the streets with the homeless during campaigns to effect change. Why not? What rules in society exist that stipulates that in order to be strong, intelligent and successful as a woman, you can’t wear sundresses, or make up? Or be sexy, and spiritual for that matter. Honestly.
This is what I want to say to my adorable nieces, and to my boys who I pray grow into men of character: respect the light within each person you encounter. If you treat others with dignity—and that means yourself as well—you will hopefully, never be in a situation that makes you feel less then, entitled to take advantage, or used. Communicate honestly, girls, by asking the man in your life what his intentions are. Don’t assume he’s committed. Don’t drink too much and put yourself into sticky situations where others can gain control. And, boys, if you see or hear something, like a fraternity brother bragging about date raping, or drugging a girl, stand up, like a man with character, and turn him in or challenge him. Think of your beautiful cousins and the daughters you may have one day. And don’t drink too much, as that can entitle the dog to bark, as DeVon says.
Occult: adj: “of involving, or relating to supernatural, mystical, or magical powers or phenomena.”
Jodi Picoult’s 23rd novel Leaving Time, is surprisingly so much more than a moving saga about grief, loss of a mother, and the wonderful world of elephants. I just finished reading this nearly over-whelming book, even as her next block buster debut’s this week. Leaving Time has haunted me for a week since I completed it. Not just because it confirms what I’ve always considered: that elephants live more dignified, loving lives within families who protect and support one another. Or that love lasts beyond time and space, so when we lose someone we love, the love survives. But what intrigues me most, as a writer, is how Jodi interweaved the occult within the fabric of this mystery in a way that slips the unassuming reader—the reader who would not normally read a book with paranormal aspects—into the thick of the drama. Not until the very end do we learn that two of the main characters are, in fact, dead and were the entire manuscript. We are left questioning the dimension in which they lived, one where the dead continue living a bustling life which contains a world with school, family, binging, boozy nights, dating, money problems, work issues, rent to be paid, etc. It’s a dimension where it’s possible they (and everyone within it) don’t realize they are dead, and they don’t have all the answers, nor the ability to find the people they love. The notion that we die and all the answers are revealed, is turned on its head. The common held belief that our dead loved ones are a thought away, is also dismissed, as 13-year-old Jenna, the main character, searches for her mother Alice Metcalf, a scientist who studies elephant behavior. Jenna hires a broke, formerly-famous psychic named Serenity, and a washed-up, pessimistic, alcoholic detective, Virgil, to help her find Alice. In the end, we learn that Virgil and Jenna are both dead (as well as everyone else they connected with, such as Jenna’s grandmother, a policeman, a lab assistant). Yet, they all seemed to lead vibrant lives with other people in them, bars to go to, cars to drive, policemen to talk with, school teachers, clients, landlords, etc. But apparently their world must lie on another plane of reality, like fine line of ice below the surface of our perception, that somehow, Serenity can see. But even Serenity doesn’t realize Jenna and Virgil aren’t alive, until the very end.
Most of Jodi’s interviews about Leaving Time concern the plight of elephants, how they grieve, and how wonderful a metaphor their ability to grieve, is, to her then first empty nest at home. She doesn’t say what motivated her to create such a walloping metaphysical surprise at the end. Stories of the elephants are woven into the book via Alice Metcalf’s notes, that Jenna reads. Alice is a researcher who has lived in Africa, as well as on a New England sanctuary with her husband and then three-year-old daughter Jenna, when she disappeared after a tragic accident leaving one person dead and one mentally insane. Jenna, who was three at the time of the accident, can’t remember what happened and had to be raised by her stoic grandmother. This story alone, is compelling enough to be a best-seller with all the ups and downs of who actually got killed and who slipped away and why. And the glimpse into the world of the elephants and how they are tragically being hurt by poachers, is critical for the world to understand. See this video for example.
What I find ultimately puzzling, is how Jodi manages to pull together so many subplots and themes into one novel, without losing me at any turn. She tackles the occult and afterlife, the plight of elephants, a murder, mental illness, spousal abuse, infidelity, suicide, mother-daughter and grandmother friction, the struggle to follow ones dreams as a mother, and a daughter’s unfailing love for her mother, and the huge emotional and unbearable loss a child endures when a parent abandons them.
It’s a beautiful novel. It’s powerful. It’s unlike any other I have read. Jodi Picoult is only getting better with each novel. You need to read it.
And with a side note to my fellow writers, isn’t it remarkable to think that Jodi Picoult, New York Times best selling author (whose last nine novels debuted number one on this prestigious list) was rejected by 100 agents before one believed in her?
Keep going my friends. And read her book for inspiration!
The Light We Lost is a must read for all my girlfriends—single or married. Please, all of you, read this book. Jill Santopolo dives into the age-old question: “Why do I love him so much?” She explores why a woman could love one man passionately, insanely, recklessly—and continue to think of him for more than a decade—granting second chances, friendship and compassion—when he had the potential to crush her. Even after he had left her, broke her heart, called only when depressed, and behaved selfishly for years—she always allowed him back in. WHY?
I adore The Light We Lost for so many reasons. Jill is honest in how she portrays Lucy’s weakness for Gabe, who had, and would always, put his needs before hers—whether that be his career or his work out. Even when they lived together, he had major issues. He was secretive to the point of finding a job and arranging to move without telling her; flirty with other women; and not attentive to her feelings when at parties. He was confusing. Gabe proclaimed Lucy was his light, his muse and professed an undying love for her—yet Lucy never met his mother, whom he adored. You get the idea. But Lucy loved Gabe with an unapologetic intensity that she couldn’t control. She loved him more and more over the years—even while married to her stable, successful, happy and loving husband, whose only real crimes seemed to be planning trips to Paris and buying a dog and a beach house, all as surprises for her.
One could argue that Jill Santopolo’s debut novel romanticized the obsession many women have with the lovable, yet commitment phobic, unobtainable guy. Others may think she romanticized a woman’s longing for heat, lust, good sex with a bad boy, or an exciting and intriguing man. (Gabe took photos for the Associated Press in war regions.) But that’s not a comprehensive answer. I think Lucy’s inability to let Gabe go was rooted deeply in her need not to become her mother and to be seen, heard and respected. Gabe had his faults, but he also listened to, and encouraged Lucy, in all her dreams and career aspirations. Lucy’s husband Darren referred to her career as “cute” and asked for her to stay home with their baby instead of going back to work, using manipulative phrases like: “Don’t you want to stay home? Who else would take as good care of her?” Gabe would never do that, she had mused. Yet Gabe would also be gone for months on end while on the front lines in wars. He wasn’t the logical man to have a child with. And Lucy knew this. Yet she always picked up the phone when he called, even on her wedding day. She became intimate emotionally within the first breath, focussing on whatever His emergency was, whatever His pain was. She raced to see him whenever he was back in New York, even after she was married. It was a risky choice that put the intimacy with her husband at risk.
This book will snare you in, dear girlfriends, from the moment she and Gabe discuss their dreams during their first college date on 9-11. As you read how interested Gabe is in her need to make a difference, to help children all over the world, you’ll wish you had a man like him to talk with. The scenes of him reading her scripts, or helping her form ideas for her children’s TV show, will make you jealous. He cared, and was involved,committed to supporting her success. He was into her: her dreams, her ideas, her thoughts. The two inspired each other to be more, and to keep striving to make a difference. That’s heady stuff. As life chugs along with adulting choices that often require compromises, many women, especially moms, get lost. Lucy wanted to keep that determined, savvy, creative part of herself that Gabe always saw. She missed being able to talk with him about new show ideas. Her husband didn’t care about her job at all.
The fact that Gabe was also hot, romantic, overly sexual, unavailable for long-term commitments, yet still needed her, and her alone, during every crisis—was like crack to Lucy. Add the detail that Gabe was a wounded soul from an abusive father, and now you’ve combined crack with heroine for just about any woman.
This book will help you, my girlfriends, see your own obsessions, co-dependent tendencies and any man who became like a drug for you. I doubt there are real Gabes on this planet—yet there are men who have some of his alluring qualities: the artist; the romantic; the compassionate; the wounded; the leaver, the commitment phobic, yet emotionally intimate; the secretive; the dynamic; the listener; the supporter; the sexual dynamo; the wanderer; the brave; the Shakespeare quoter, you get the idea. He had so many hooks for Lucy, but think back and notice which similar hook was within the one you couldn’t say no to. The one you betrayed your self respect for by taking back again and again due to your irrational love that youjustcouldNOTLETGO.
Maybe you’re still fighting the temptation? Maybe he’s the one you could take back again, because you just don’t understand why you love him so. Even after he has hurt you time and time again and shown an inability to respect, love or be available for you, a part of you wants him back, right? It’s not explainable. The idea of never smelling him again or hearing the sound of his whisper in your ear, or his hand on your low back is excruciating, isn’t it? Maybe it’s romantic. Maybe he’s your soul mate or husband from another life time. I’m sure you think the connection is cosmic.
But maybe, just maybe, he’s an addiction.
Read her book, girlfriends. And tell me what you came up with! 🙂
Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, recently revealed that her next book Clock Dance, is based on her theory that a person’s entire life and identity can be shaped by a single decision made in early childhood. As early as seven years of age, Tyler says a child can know exactly who they want to be and what type of temperament they want to have. For instance, Tyler said in her published Note prefacing Clock Dance:
“I believe that our entire lives can be shaped by a single decision that we make during childhood as to who, exactly, we should be. As to how we should be, what kind of people we want to become. ”
She provides a few examples of decisions she made when seven years of age, after studying the two grown ups in her life. Upon comparison of her parents, Tyler decided that she’d rather be like the steady, gentle, patient one, instead of the sharp tempered and erratic one. And that being the case, she knew she’d have to not marry anyone patient, as clearly, there “is only a certain amount of patience to be had, and you don’t want it all to go to the other person.”
She leads readers to surmise that one decision to be the patient one, basically formed her life and became the catalyst for her next best selling novel.
Do you agree with her theory? Can we decide as early as seven who we will become? What our personality traits will be? Maybe. But then again, don’t we always have the opportunity for reflection and to change, to grow? Or maybe we just humor ourselves with the idea that we can or will change, yet underlying personality traits of either being hyper, dramatic, patient, shy, short-tempered, etc. are embedded into our soul like a watermark that never leaves. So are we born with any genetic predispositions, or do we choose all of our personality traits based on our environments and what we choose to become?
I’m digging into these gems this mother’s day! Last night, after teaching my hot yoga class, I went to a book store and walked around. I had cancelled on a friend who offered to take me to the Trocadero in Hollywood since my nanny had cancelled. I really wasn’t that upset about it. Yes, it’s the quintessential ‘Hollywood spot’, but I’m not that into Hollywood. I’m more into creating and dreaming. So, I decided to treat myself to a dream walk, exploration, of the book store isles sans kiddos for an hour. A top expert in publishing, an agent for 20+ years, told me in an interview last week that trying to get published in the genre of literary fiction, is nearly impossible for new writers today (via traditional publishing houses.) Hmmmm. There’s a lot of fear in that statement. And I’m not one who needs to mire in fear or let it inchworm inside my head as I write my 4th novel. I respect his opinion, but it is not the definitive voice deciding whether or not I will ever get published. So I took a stroll down the isles and among the ‘new voices’ and low and behold, there are many in both literary and women’s fiction. My new intention is to read a ‘new voice’ every month until next mother’s day. Why? Because I want to support my fellow writers and new voices who are trying to give birth to their babies in this daunting publishing arena. So, I picked out The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney published by Harper Collins in 2016. It is Sweeney’s first book to be published by a major publisher, and soon to be made a movie. Family drama, addiction, inheritance, sibling squabbles, are all contained within its pages. I can’t wait to start!
My other books I purchased last night are bite-sized spiritual instruments of wisdom to inspire my meditation practice, which helps me focus on what I can do and create, and stay out of fear. I can turn to a page, within The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba or the Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Mysticism, and read one teaching by these masters daily. Here are two examples. I adore Ueshiba’s art representing movement as I’ve never been able to separate movement of dance and yoga with the spiritual. That’s why meditation was hard for me to embrace five year ago, yet dancing and yoga have always been my conduits to calm my mind, improve my mood, let go of fear, etc.
Dala Lama’s ‘little book’ is perfect to inspire meditation themes as it’s just enough to start the conversation that can be released to the Divine within meditation. For example:
Busy moms don’t often get to spend hours at a time reading on a Sunday. But I got a few hours in this morning and I’m grateful. I’m now off to the California Science Center to explore King TUT’s tomb with my nine-year-old. It’s the perfect Mother’s Day for me as it started with books and poetry (poem by my little guy); will marinate with wonder at the museum, will move with music, as we go to a concert this evening, and end with picking up my oldest at the airport. It’s my first mother’s day in 16 years without my wonder William. I can’t wait to give him a big hug!
I’m sending so much love to all my fellow mums. May you feel at peace with yourself and with your Dharma. May you feel inspired to reach for your dreams. May you feel healthy and supported. May you always feel your divine light and self worth. And may you always, always embrace your sense of humor—God knows we all need it!
A few novels cross genres with perfection. Diane Frank, however, weaves multiple genres to create a tapestry of writing that could almost become a new category of its own. Blackberries in the Dream House, her first novel, is described as magical realism, yet some could argue that it is a form of poetry, erotic romance, mystical and or spiritual fiction, new age, historical/cultural, pseudo-paranormal romance or romantic fantasy. You get the idea. I am fascinated when an author boldly crosses boundaries within genres, as well as cultures and periods of history, with such precision that it is barely noticed. It’s much like watching a prima ballerina who makes strenuous work appear elegant and effortless.
I met Diane Frank Valentine’s week at the San Francisco Writers Conference(SFWC) where we spoke at length, like old friends, touching on a variety of subjects. We are both writers who are meditators and yogis. We are both fascinated by Japanese and Buddhist culture and art. We both love music and dancing. We have a little in common. Diane’s first book was a bit of risk, in terms of publishing in the 21st century, as her main character is a Japanese geisha from 150 years ago. The writing is poetic, erotic, spiritual and infused with musical, historical and Buddhist overtones. Each chapter is short, and could read like an individual poem or a recounting of a lyrical dream. Some agents today might consider this novel daunting to represent—as agents at the SFWC admitted trepidation over representing first-time novelists who write within differing cultures or gender viewpoints. (To read more, see Voice, Authenticity & the Right to Write.).
With that said, I strongly believe readers will always resonate with powerfully artistic writing that transcends such constricted boundaries. Which is likely one reason why Blackberries in the Dream House was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Diane has published nine books and is currently writing another, while also teaching creative writing and poetry in San Francisco and Iowa. I interviewed Diane recently about Blackberries in the Dream House: her process when writing it and her advice to other budding authors willing to tackle subjects and characters outside of today’s defined publishing norms.
Q. What first inspired you to write about a geisha and a Buddhist monk in Japan? Can you pin point your first ah ha moment that sparked your journey toward creating Blackberries in the Dream House?
A. I’d like to begin by telling you how this book came into being. While I was still living in Iowa, The Winter Life of Shooting Stars, my fourth book of poems, was published. When I called my Grandma Helen to share the good news, she said to me, “Diane, I don’t understand poetry.Could you write a novel?” I said, “Sure, Grandma, I’ll write you a novel,” even thought at the time I didn’t know what the book would be about.
I don’t know how it is for other writers, but I feel that the story I tell in Blackberries in the Dream House chose me. It began with a deja vu in my bathtub. The tiles turned deep blue, and I felt like I was in Kyoto in a public bath during the late Edo period. The geisha and the monk were there, and the story started telling itself to me until it was told.
Blackberries is a forbidden love story about a geisha and a Buddhist monk in Kyoto 150 years ago. It’s written in the genre of magical realism which means that extraordinary things can happen in the waking state. The story is told from inside the soul of the geisha, and it begins with an epigram from Rumi…
“Lovers don’t meet along the road somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”
Blackberries in the Dream House comes from a deep place in my soul.My strong intention is that this book will have a gift for everyone who reads it.
2. Are you a Buddhist?
I’m not a practicing Buddhist but am strongly influenced by Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy – especially Tibetan Buddhism but also Zen. I learned to meditate when I was twenty years old and continue to meditate twice a day. My spiritual practice takes me to a place of deep peace and provides a grounding I maintain as I live in the world.
Traveling in Japan and Nepal strongly influenced this book. I loved living among the Buddhist people.I deeply admire the Dalai Lama and have been strongly influenced by his teachings. When I was trekking in Nepal, I had the opportunity to ask the Tengboche Rinpoche (the High Lama at Tengboche Monastery) a question that was important to my spiritual growth, and his answer has guided me for many years.
When I was in Japan researching Blackberries in the Dream House, all of the people I met believe in reincarnation and felt that I was returning to Japan from a previous life. The Noh Sensei (Master teacher of Noh drama and singing) asked me, “How does it feel to be back in Japan?” The geisha from Kyoto who mentored me had me walk in her maiko (young geisha in training) sandals to see what I would remember when I wore them. Walking the streets of Pontocho, the geisha district where my novel takes place, was non-stop deja vu.
My 400 mile trek in the Nepal Himalayas was a spiritual quest. I write about this in Letters from a Sacred Mountain Place: A Journey through the Nepal Himalayas, which was published two weeks ago. My new book takes you into the mountains, with stories, poems and 53 color photographs. My early readers have told me that my new book has a similar feel to Blackberries, especially with my “Buddhist friend,” who is like the inner lover in Rumi’s poetry.
3. There has been much dialogue about the risks authors take when writing outside of their nationality, gender, sex, or even period of history. Yet Yukiko’s and Kenji’s voices are authentic and every scene within this book is believable. How much research went into crafting the elements within the dialogue to create believability? For instance, knowing the various Japanese musical instruments and art techniques of the day, or describing the temples.
I believe that as human souls, we have lived in many times and places. But yes, I did a tremendous amount of research. Years ago, I was drawn to a book by Liza Dalby called Geisha. It’s the definitive anthropological study of the geisha community of Kyoto. I’ve also written several scripts for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, multi-image presentations to introduce their traveling exhibits. These included “Footsteps of the Buddha,” to introduce an exhibit of Buddhist art and sculpture, and “Japanese Ink Painting,” an exhibit of the Japanese Sumi-e artists through the centuries. Yukiko, the geisha in my novel, is a Sumi-e artist, and this is how she meets the young monk, as part of her training. My research for LACMA educated me in the subtle aspects and techniques of Japanese ink painting. My book also has a subtle layering of Tibetan Buddhism and Kabbalah, which I have studied.
After I began writing my novel, I had a hunger to read everything I could find about Japan, Japanese art, Zen Buddhism, and the geisha community. I also had guidebooks and maps so I knew the shrines, the streets, the rivers, the mountains.I worked with two Japanese advisors, who were students at the university in Iowa where I was teaching. Izumi Nakamura made lists for me of names appropriate for my characters in the late Edo period. I would give her the sound I wanted, and she would give me a choice of names with those sounds. She also made lists of flowers and trees that grow in Japan. Paul Shimura shared his experience growing up in Japan and saved me from a few cultural mistakes. In the late Edo period, there were no mirrors. People used water to see their reflection. No clocks – people told time by the ringing of the temple bells. No mangos in Japan – use a persimmon. He never gave me praise – which is the opposite of the way I teach – but made sure I stayed within the Japanese culture as I wrote. Later, when I went to Japan, Izumi hosted me and translated.
Before completing the novel, I knew I had to go to Japan and spend time in the geisha community. When I wrote to Izumi, I did not know that the Japanese people revere their teachers or that I was her favorite teacher. Izumi invited me to stay with her family, and she offered to travel with me to Kyoto, introduce me to the people she felt I should meet, and translate, since I don’t speak Japanese. She offered to plan my whole visit, and as an art-centered person, she wanted every day to be beautiful. At that time, she was studying music with a Noh Sensei who lived in Kyoto. Her Sensei arranged for me to be mentored by a famous geisha in Kyoto – you can find photographs of Masukiyo on my website, If you enter the pages that feature Blackberries in the Dream House, I share a lot of information.
It is almost unheard of for a Western woman to be allowed into the geisha community, but as a gift from the Noh Sensei, that door opened for me. Izumi asked three of her friends to come with us and help her with the translation, as she had never become completely fluent in English. Masukiyu, the geisha who mentored me, shared many things about her life and answered provocative questions. She has a beautiful singing voice and has entertained visiting dignitaries and the Prime Minister of Japan. Everything about her is deeply feminine and artistic – her lovely voice, the way she moved in her green silk kimono, and her skill in making everyone feel comfortable around her. Even the simple act of watching her serve green tea and mochi was deeply pleasing. Before I left, she asked me to try on her maiko sandals to see if I would remember anything. They fit my feet perfectly.
Geishas take the mystery of being a woman and push it all the way to the edge. They are artists and feisty independent women. If they have a lover, it is their choice. Blackberries in the Dream House is narrated from the soul of the geisha, but what surprised me most when I was in Kyoto was how well I knew the monk. I went to Buddhist and Shinto temples every day, but as I approached Ryoanji, which in older times was called Oshidoridera, I immediately knew that the monk lived there.
And about the musical instruments . . . When I was writing about Japanese ink painting (sumi-e) for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I listened to every recording of Japanese music available in San Francisco at that time. I know the instruments; I know the way they sound.Also, because I am a cellist, I know the discipline it takes to learn and master a musical instrument.
My book has been praised as having an authentic Japanese voice. I think you have to love Japan to do this, but I don’t think you have to be Japanese. I think the novel feels authentic to you because it comes from such a deep place inside my soul.
4. The eroticism and spirituality weave together flawlessly. Did you intend to write such an erotic love story?
The whole process of writing a novel is mysterious to me, but the weave of eroticism and spirituality is at the center of the way I view the world. I believe that sexuality is sacred and can open the way to the spiritual. As you can tell from reading my novel, I don’t believe in a separation of the erotic and the spiritual.
One more thing …I was living in a spiritual community when I wrote this book. Many of the men in the community thought they were monks or tried to be monks, even though they were not this way by nature. It gave me a lot of material for this book. I think many people who are deeply involved with a spiritual path get confused about their sexuality. When Blackberries was featured in Tricycle magazine, a popular Buddhist journal, their topic was “Where is the Edge?” They used a chapter of my novel to explore this.
5. What/ who are your influences?
As a poet, my major influences are my teachers – Stephen Dunn, Kathleen Fraser, Robert Bly, and Daniel J. Langton – and the poets I love – Rainer Maria Rilke, Mirabai, Rumi, Kabir, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, Thomas Centolella, William Carlos Williams, Yehuda Amichai and too many others to list here. Because of Robert Bly’s teaching and his translations, the Spanish language surrealist poets have been a powerful influence – Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, Cezar Vallejo, and Juan Ramon Jimenez. My life is filled with poetry.
With fiction, I’ve been strongly influenced by magical realism, the Spanish language poets and novelists, and authors who do similar things in English: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude; Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate; and anything by Tom Robbins, but especially, Jitterbug Perfume. While writing my novel, I also read Damage, by Josephine Hart, as a model for writing with short chapters; and novels that gave me permission to go way out there, like Hard‑Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami.
Pierre DeLattre, author of Walking on Air and Tales of a Dalai Lama, was a major influence. This is what he wrote about my book: “What would happen to us if we were to undertake the discipline of turning our life entirely and self‑consciously, into a poem? Through Yukiko, who becomes both a contemplative Buddhist and a geisha skilled in the refinements of sensuous pleasure, Diane Frank allows us to live within the soul of a young woman who has undertaken to create a life imagined and expressed as a poem, in every moment, waking and sleeping, making love or meditating. With its power of language, Blackberries in the Dream House will seduce many readers into considering whether a prosaic life is the only choice we have.”
6. Do you have advice for other poets who want to make the leap into lyrical fiction?
My huge breakthrough came when I realized that to write beautiful prose, you need to work the language the same way you work every line of a poem. Sentence by sentence, I did this. Since I am primarily trained as a poet, I had two rules while I was writing – one extended metaphor per chapter and every sentence has to be beautiful. I worked the language line by line, the same way I work the language of a poem.
I feel that a novel, like a poem, is a magic spell. As an author, I feel a responsibility to take the reader to a positive place by the end of the book – regardless of where I’ve taken them during the journey.Most of my books have a long dip into shadow material at some point in the narrative, but I like the bring the reader back up transformed.
I use an intuitive writing process instead of planning the whole book in advance. In that way, the book surprises me and delights me as I am writing it. There are times when I finish a chapter and start weeping about what just happened. And times I am filled with gratitude. When I start writing, I fine-tune the previous chapter, and then ask myself, “What comes next?” Then the soul of the novel starts speaking to me again. It’s a mysterious and wonderful process. The other thing – since novels take more time than poems, you need to put yourself on a writing schedule.
When I began writing Blackberries in the Dream House, it felt like remembering something. But early into the book, the characters took over and created their own lives. They did unexpected things and frequently surprised me. The inner world of each character flooded through me day by day until my life became transparent. My visions, conversations, and dreams poured into the novel. I felt like I was Japanese as I was writing, and over time the novel became large enough to embody every important image and insight I have ever known.
My major advice to all writers … Make your writing a messenger for what is in your soul. Work your language so that it is powerful and beautiful. Work each line until every line sings.
I hope you enjoy my novel, and I would love to hear from you. I’m available to come to your book club, your favorite book store, your writers group, your library, or a university where you live. To schedule readings and workshops in your area, please get in touch with me!
Today I met with a talented poet and artist who self published her first book in 2017 with Amazon, for less than $2,000. That’s amazing. And it’s gorgeous. Shani’s Whispers of Grace is a delicious compilation of paintings and spiritual poetry, inspired by her time in silence “with Shiva” at the holy hill of Arunachala in Tamil Nadu. Mystical, lyrical and emotional, Shani could have sought out an agent and tried to publish traditionally. Instead, she chose to self publish and to hire a friend to create her cover. As we chatted today about her next book, now in the works, we both began discussing the pros and cons of the self publishing route. As most of you reading this know, I’m pitching agents and have written three novels, now working on my fourth. Intrinsically, I worry about the costs of self publishing and managing all the self promotion, printing costs, pr costs, platform management and search elevation, contractual issues, etc. by my self. I’ve always held agents in high regard and read experts advice such as Shawne Coyne (who published this article today lauding what good agents can do: What it Takes: Art + Commerse = Better Art.).
But after speaking with the kind-hearted and spiritual Shani today, I see that in the end, whether a writer decides to self publish or pursue traditional publishing, it all boils down to expectation and time. Shani is happy to let her book grow organically through word of mouth referrals (including mine, buy it please!). She allows placement to happen organically within appropriate settings, such as spiritual book stores, or yoga and meditation retreat centers. As Shani said: “if I touch one soul, I am happy.” She isn’t bogged down by what frightens me: all the time consuming PR, self promotion pitching and travel and speaking engagements. And her work is doing just fine since she kept creation costs relatively low.
I love her perspective and choices. Because in no way does her choice to self publish affect the quality of her craft. In fact, I think this journey of Shani’s has allowed her to focus 100% of her time on her art, and perfecting that art, without worrying about the business side. She lets her art speak for itself—and it does.
I love this last line of her poem Song of the Self: “It is only the Supreme non-dual “I” that destroys ignorance and pure Knowledge shines forth as Self.”
I think all of us writers could learn from Shani. When one continues to write for the sake of writing and for the gift it gives us by honing the craft—while enjoying the journey—the writing will intuitively and intrinsically get better. And it is more likely that an author will make deep connections with her readers as well. From the heart-felt intention of creating an inspiring piece of art, for the sake of art, that art, in turn, will flourish and the right organic opportunities will arise.
Thank you Shani for your words of wisdom today. I can’t wait to see your paintings and your next book!
Hmmm, what does THAT mean, I imagine many of you fellow writers and artists asking. When a yogi says you need to “trust the Universe” it can sound vague at best and spiritually superior at worst. But as a writer for 25 years and a yogi for only 8, I can tell you that trusting the Universe requires specific actions in order to create more, produce more, and live in an abundance consciousness that can create a vibration of attraction and opportunities. And it’s a daily achievement, as each day will be different. But if you, like me, are focussed on your art and know that it is what you are born to do, then trust your instinctual voice and your universal guides—even if you aren’t completely sure you believe in their existence. If you do, you will banish your FEAR that is ultimately what is standing in your way in the first place, right? The FEAR of not being good enough. The FEAR of ‘who am I to think I can be X (insert: published, artist with gallery exhibit, musician with record deal, etc.)? The FEAR of what if I don’t make it? The FEAR of what if I can’t pay rent?
These are all serious concerns, for sure, but what you focus on grows. I’m not advocating everyone throw caution to the wind and go bankrupt, but there is more time in a day than we actually realize. There are ways to find more time to slip into a creative space on a daily basis. There are ways to minimize fears, produce more effectively and live with more joy—while you’re reaching for your dreams. This way, you can enjoy today, the moment, so much that reaching your goal almost doesn’t matter. Why? Because you’re living your art, living authentically, and enjoying your life more. Here are tools that are currently working for me:
Reduce the hours at work in your day job so you can focus more on your art. Over the years I’ve encountered this lesson time and time again. At one point, I left a high paying consultancy gig with a New York PR firm. Why? Because it was taking up all my time and I couldn’t actually finish my 2nd novel. (The first I wrote in graduate school moons ago, so this was my second attempt to return to fiction in more than 12 years!) I also recently let go of co-managing a yoga studio because the hours were long, the work labor-intensive in the heat (a hot yoga studio) and I was exhausted after taking care of the kiddos every night and not actually writing. So now I just teach yoga classes and write for magazines when an editor reaches out. Yes, the money is less, but I finished my 3rd novel and am now jamming on my 4th! My days feel yummy. I enjoy the hours I write and I love the balance I’m creating.
Start your day early and set positive intentions. If you aren’t a meditator, consider it. You can literally download free guided meditations from DavidJi (one of my favorite human beings) or from The Chopra Center and just listen for 15 minutes with ear plugs. All have messages to light up your agni (internal fire) and help you tap into your intuitive, creative center to manifest your dreams. We often have to let go of mental baggage, or negative fear-based programming from childhood, that trigger our less-than thinking. We have to let go of that and embrace our Divine right to infinite possibilities.
Commit to your art every day, even if some days that means a mere 30 minutes. This is hard, I know. Some days I don’t write or work on my fiction. Those days are usually consumed with a sick child, or work from a day job that required extra time. But I’ve realized that the more I try to stick to this goal, the easier it is to achieve. By letting go of social media and 15 hours a week at a low-paying day job, I’m able to find an hour or more every day to write or pitch an agent, or enter a contest…getting me closer to my goal of publishing traditionally.
Put aside art-focussed weekends. If you are single without children, you can really do this. 🙂 If you are married or a single parent, this can be a little challenging. I’ve asked my former mother-in-law to watch the children for weekends when I needed to get away, flying her across the state to help, even if I just went down the road to write. I’m also considering swapping kiddos for a few hours every other Saturday with another single mother who is an artist, so we both garner more time and our kids get to play. Find creative solutions!
Take breaks to exercise & breathe deeply. This is important, especially when fear is creeping back in. If you can’t afford yoga classes or a gym membership, exercise in your house, or jog or take a walk. And breathe. Take 3 deep breaths, holding them at the top, then releasing slowly, visualizing all the stress melting away with the breath.
Pay attention to the energy you surround yourself with. If you listen to the news first thing in the morning, or read your social media scroll, or check your email—before meditating or planning out your day—you may sink into a fear-based mentality. If you often talk with relatives or friends who doubt your abilities and don’t support your artistic endeavors, think about cutting down your time with them. Start to allow in other artists or supportive friends if you aren’t all ready. Find them via Meetup groups or start your own. Cut off the news and turn on music that inspires you when you’re home. Create the energy that fosters creativity.
Read from the experts! Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird and many others, is beyond inspirational. Check out her Ted Talk video: 12 Truths I learned from Writing and Life. Steven Pressfield, author of 17 books, is another favorite of mine. The Art of War is Pressfield’s eye-opening book that explains why artists and writers often stop or get discouraged, just when they’re on the verge of a breakthrough. He describes it as the Universal Law of Resistance that manifests in procrastination, self-sabotage, fear, arrogance, self-doubt. His weekly advice can be emailed to you as well, a helpful tool of inspiration!
Believe in yourself. Be good to yourself. You are on this planet for a reason. I’ve come to believe that art is the universal language of love and compassion. It is a worthy endeavor. Anyone who tells you differently, must never have cried during a movie or at the end of a novel or when finding that perfect song that speaks to his soul. And isn’t that sad to imagine? To me, nothing trumps that soul connection via art.
Have a beautiful day. As always, thank you kindly for reading my humble suggestions and prose.
Is it OK for a writer to create main characters of the opposite sex, sexual orientation or with a different ethnic background from her own? Is it believable? Will the readers trust the voice of the protagonist? And IF I write a novel where the characters live in another country, is that stepping too far outside of my zone of authenticity? Since both of my novels that I’m currently selling to agents have crossed these barriers, have I now become an author that is too hard to sell in todays restrictive fiction marketplace?
These are questions that kept surfacing for me while at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference this past weekend. First, let me say Wow! What an amazing four day journey! The SFWC had more than 100 workshops, pitches to agents, meetings with editors, authors, publicists, experts and lectures by famous authors, poets at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill. There were hundreds of authors from all over the globe with manuscripts in hand. The level of creativity was intoxicating. I highly recommend writers go next year!
What I heard from agents, and a few published authors, however, was confusing. Two agents (after hearing my short pitch) told me I would be ‘hard to sell’ to top 5 publishers because my main character of Between Thoughts of You is a Japanese-Hawaiian woman and I’m not Hawaiian. Yup. These comments were made before reading a word of the manuscript and without asking me why I chose this character, or how much research I did, or how I felt compelled to create this person who is a strong, yet gentle and spiritual female—the perfect combination to be the hospice nurse to trigger an old man who misses the love of his life, a Japanese woman he met after WW11.
A published author who spoke at the conference, expressed her trepidation over crossing ethnic and socio-economic barriers in her first novel inspired by an NPR story. Because her protagonist was a woman from Mexico and she, a college-educated, middle class woman from San Francisco, she said she feared whether she had the right to create her. “I worried. Who am I to write about someone from Guatemala or Mexico?” she said to a large audience of writers.
As a journalist who studied with the BBC in London, researched documentary journalists such as John McPhee, and who studied and published with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, where I was asked to live with islanders and sailors for months and write about them, I was dumbfounded by her statement. I sat in the audience and thought, “Who are you NOT to write about a Mexican immigrant?”
IF a writer is inspired by a true story and wants to fictionalize the experience to create more awareness, the writer is hearing a calling. IF a story beckons to the writer, it will become inflamed with passion and purpose. And IF, even in the face of fear and doubts, the writer can’t kick the idea of the story, much like a buzzing of a bee at his ear, then the writer must follow the calling and write the damn story. The mission, then, becomes to open the eyes and hearts of the reader so that they can become compassionate towards a human whose experience they might not otherwise care about. I would then say that it becomes imperative that we cross those borders, of ethnicity, walk that tightrope of place and voice as an author, to enter into the international language of emotion. And, of course, much research needs to be done to make the voice of the writer and the sense of place and location believable. But this is achievable.
It’s not surprising that my first novel Lucifer’s Laughter, a murder mystery and my MFA thesis when in New York, has a main character that is a lobsterman in Maine. I lived there and documented that region and had been a crime reporter for years prior. My second novel, Uriel’s Mask, is inspired by a newspaper article I read back in 1991 when I was a reporter in North Carolina. I kept the newspaper clipping with me through multiple moves, knowing I would write about this character, an illiterate daughter of a freed slave, who created masks in honor of the spirits who visited her while she sat by the French Broad River in Asheville. See, I knew that I’d write about her one day, but I didn’t know exactly how. It was a story that called to me. In Uriel’s Mask, her masks (like in real life) are sold in New York, allowing all her grandchildren to become educated. One of the main characters is a southern black man, a talented musician and her grandchild, who becomes one of the first black students at University of North Carolina. As a southerner, Uriel’s Mask, may be easier to ‘sell’ to agents, but I am not black, nor am I a man or the grandchild of a freed slave. And, to make things more complicated (I write with a laugh) I also created a side character who I adore. He is a gay man having an affair with a married man in the closet. Once inside Chris’s head, we see his heart, so full and kind. At the children’s library where he works, he is more patient and compassionate with the children then most of the strict, uptight southern mothers.
When we step outside our comfort zone and allow ourselves to see another viewpoint—to enter into the heart and mind of another human being—we accept the fact that there really are no chasms too great to justify our differences, our racism, our sexism, our superior judgements.
So my reaction to the agents who want authors to look like their main characters is this: Give us a chance. If a writer does a lot of research, like a documentary journalist, there is no location too far, or background too different, to write about. We would not have Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (as Michael Larsen, Co-Founder of the SFWC so kindly pointed out to me) or The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,or even the JK Rowling Harry Potter series.
To write Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel and the one I pitched at the SFWC, I returned to Italy, I travelled four times to Hawaii, and I researched WW11 documents regarding northern California internment camps for the elite of the German, Italian and Japanese forces to await trial. So much research went into this book that called to me simply from a conversation with a dying old man I once loved. Our conversation in Tuscany was one where he pondered how his life would have evolved, had he followed his heart, and not his fear, after the War. If he had married his true love, what would have happened? Another inspiration for the novel came from conversations with an 89-year-old German woman whose father was high up in the SS. She, her mother and father were sent to a Northern California camp after the War…Both stories merged in my consciousness and birthed the idea behind Between Thoughts of You. It is the story that called to me. It is the story that only I could tell. And it is one fueled by the power of love, the destructive forces of fear, and the dying desire to follow one’s heart.
These are universal truths no matter sex, sexual orientation, or ethnic background—for the characters & the writer. 🙂
If you enjoyed this conversation, you may also be interested in the following articles:
Resistance is a “Force of Nature”, a Universal Law, like gravity, according to author Steven Pressfield. In his book, The War of Art, he explains how resistance appears to everyone through fear, procrastination, distraction, anxiety, thoughts of not being worthy or good enough, etc. Steven writes that we all have our own unique creative genius, but this force called resistance often keeps us from expressing it. It’s the force that keeps us from changing careers, running a marathon, writing our novel, starting a business, even falling in love.
Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday replayed her 2013 interview with Steven this week, as his 15th novel, The Knowledge, hits book stores. Clearly, Steven is not slowing down orgiving in to resistance. Here is what he has learned in the 40+ years of tackling this force:
Resistance is strongest as we approach the precipice of our dreams, or are on the verge of growing spiritually closer to the highest version of ourselves. Watch this amazing short video clip as Steven describes “The Six Things We Resist Most in Life.”
If this clip doesn’t launch, here is the quick list of where resistance hits most:
The launching of any entrepreneurial venture (profit or nonprofit).
Any diet or health regime, especially an activity to tighten abdominals.
Any program of spiritual advancement.
Any program to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.
Education of any kind, even in the endeavor to help others.
Any act that entails commitment of the heart, such as the decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship. ANY movement away from petty EGO-based viewpoint to something more noble, “to be generous, to be kind, to be open to love,” according to Steven, attracts much resistance.
To me, resistance is very much like the law of hiking long distances. If you’ve ever hiked for days with only a compass and a topo map, you know this law. The hike will be at its most treacherous point: raining, fog, encounters with wild animals, etc. a few moments before you find your way, or make the clearing that lights your path. That’s Resistance to me. And it requires that we just keep going. We just keep doing what we are meant to do to grow, to evolve spiritually, to embody love, to create art, to fulfill a goal; any goal.
Those dreams that are the dearest to us ignite the loudest resistance due to this Universal Law. The good news is that since resistance is a force of nature, that means the voices in our heads saying we are not enough: ARE NOT US. They do not represent our souls, our highest selves. Resistance is an outside force must be pushed through, faced, in order to rise to a higher level of being, a higher level of consciousness, to LIVE our Purpose. To face resistance, we just simply have to “put our ass where our hearts want to be,” as Steven puts it, meaning, just do it. If you want to write, write. If you want to love someone, push aside your EGO and just love him or her. If you want to start a company, keep taking baby steps and start it. If you don’t know what you want to do, just meditate and start dreaming and exploring what you like in life without judgement.
Steven, who has written 15 books, as well as screenplays, said he, too, felt resistance his whole life. It took him nearly 20 years before he began earning any money from his writing. It took many years before he allowed his writing to be his vocation, rather than his avocation—meaning before he just started writing every damn day. It required a shift in thinking. A push through resistance. He had to mentally embrace that he was a professional writer and each morning just go to his desk and sit his ass where his heart wanted to be. Once he started writing, all fear vanished as he entered the Universal flow of being exactly where he was supposed to be to create art, to be a conduit of something greater than himself. If you’ve ever lost yourself in creating something, you know what that feels like. Time floats by. You are so in the zone. You forget yourself, your troubles, time, and you focus on being a conduit of creation. It’s a dreamy state to be in.
I could so relate. Listening to this interview last night, I realized that I had major resistance to push through. I hadn’t written a word in my next novel since May. In early May I had flown my mother-in-law in town to watch the boys and I spent a week away writing every day. I had accomplished so much. Then my mom died. I returned on my birthday at the end of May, with summer approaching, I allowed myself to focus on my boys; their activities, and earning as much money as I could via journalism articles and teaching yoga. But at the end of the day, it was resistance in the form of distraction, fear, the need to be the perfect mom, the need to prove that I can take care of myself financially, the need to not feel, as I was filled with grief that I couldn’t allow out.
“Resistance is the highest as we come closest to manifesting our purpose.” It’s so true.
Last night, in a quiet house, with the boys in London, I picked up Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel, and started writing. Soon as I was back in the zone again.
If you are encountering resistance, just do the thing you fear. Just do it, without thinking too much about it.
Steven says resistance occurs whenever we are close to evolving in any way. We allow ourselves to get stuck. Why? Because we are afraid of change, even if that means staying where we can’t achieve our dreams. It’s fear of the unknown. Fear of success. We have to push through it and do what we fear until we face it and move through and beyond it.
So do what you fear. Just do it. Sit at the chair and write. Sit by the easel and paint. Call the girl. Show up. Keep going. Cook that souffle. Take a class. Go on the interview. What do you have to lose?
AloneTogether: Single Moms Support Group (This is a closed group, please say you found their site from me, Laura Roe Stevens, when requesting to join.)
The UCLA Family Commons: http://www.uclacommons.com/
Single Parent Housing: www.SPAOA.org
Pell Grants For Mothers: PellGrants.ClassesAndCareers.com