14 Feb “A Technique to Grow By”
The writing was getting stuck in my fingers. Not the words: those always come in some form as long as I can keep my fingers moving. Capote said, “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” A fair assessment. I was typing fine, enough to pay the bills. The direction of the typing – again, the writing – haunted me. I didn’t know where to take it, and I didn’t know how to find out.
As a writer, I’ve gone through a lot of phases. There was my Roth phase: everything had to be stark and poetic. Later, there was my old-paperback phase: if I couldn’t see it or touch it or smell it, I didn’t want to know about it. Science fiction would pull me in and let me go, first Clarke and then Dick and then Le Guin.
So, where was I in all of this? I couldn’t say. I suspected that was my problem. That was reassuring: knowing the problem, I could go looking for the solution.
Esalen had been, for years, a dream for me. After I read Doors of Perception in high school, I went looking for everything Esalen-esque. That was how I found the Dead and, later, Ram Dass. It was also, by way of a long depressive episode in my early twenties, how I found a meditation practice.
After eight years of discussion, my girlfriend Jackie and I decided not to put off our Esalen initiation any longer. We looked over the workshops. One stood out from all the others: Bill Donius Presents Meet Your Better Half: Unlock Your Right Brain.
Right brain: creativity. Creativity: my writing, my problem, myself. It all fit.
Jackie and I had spent nearly a decade talking up Esalen to each other, and miraculously it was even more than we thought it would be. At Bill’s workshop, we met creatives and leaders and thinkers, people asking big questions, people against the wall and people breaking through it.
We felt alive.
The conversations at our sessions were enlightening. Bill’s responses were insightful. His kindness, if you’ve never met him, is of the irresistible type. He speaks with authority about this topic he’s explored so fully and so singularly, but all the same, he welcomes you to explore it too. That was what he did with the weekend, exploring the ideas, creativity and feeling, reaching into our memories and pulling out of them a sense of newness, of surprise.
The surprise was the best of it all. You turn on the other side of yourself, the side that’s neither rote nor polished, the side you haven’t ground down, and unfamiliar thoughts reveal themselves. I could see that this technique was something I could bring to my desk. Looking through my list of ideas or reading through one of my drafts, I could talk to my better half – like talking to someone else entirely, a constant reader on call and at the ready.
Creativity was what I wanted, and creativity was what I got. All the while, I couldn’t help but envy some of the others their breakthroughs. Not everyone at the workshop was an angsty writer. Some people didn’t just want creativity: they wanted healing, some relief, wanted reassurance and comfort.
They got it too.
My breakthroughs seemed flitty next to theirs. They came with grief and pain, and the technique helped them. I saw people in the fights of their lives, and although I felt gross for it, I wanted that for myself. Creativity: fine, but also prosaic, also trifling.
Driving home from Big Sur to Las Vegas, Jackie and I stopped overnight in Pismo Beach. I did some writing, and it flowed. It felt good to think, not just type, and I saw myself thinking, really digging in.
I practiced the technique over the weeks that followed. It never failed. Read something, write something, mix it up with the less-storied hand, meet a stranger, and repeat. I had found what I went to Esalen looking for. The tool was in my hand.
Still, I thought of the others and their grand journeys inside.
A month after the workshop, Jackie and I returned to California, this time to spend a day at Universal Studios. We stayed at a hotel in West Hollywood. For dinner, we went to a French restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. It was a laid-back place, but high-end. Two servers plus a third with the crumb scraper. Lunches at our table might have hosted multi-million-dollar handshake deals. Because dinner was relaxing and the drive from our hotel had been too, we opted to skip the Uber and walk back.
What happened next: a block from the office front of the Director’s Guild, a sedan pulled up in front of us. Two young men leaped from the back seat. They said something; we didn’t hear what. Our first instinct was to avert our eyes and ignore the young men. We heard them the second time.
“Give it to us,” one said.
“The watch,” said the other.
We then saw their guns. Pistols, maybe Glocks. I handed them my watch, a knockoff, and they got back in the sedan and drove away. Jackie and I clung to each other and walked into the Chipotle nearby, agreeing that we would call the Uber we’d previously skipped.
Returning to Las Vegas, I worried about Jackie. I worried about myself too. A wheel would squeak at the grocery store and my chest would tighten. The dog’s bark, she and I agreed, had become sharper than it was. The gun in my face: that was still there too.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to bring any trauma to Esalen. Some found me instead, and I was ready for it when it did. My breakthrough was, I found, still happening. I asked my right brain, myself, for a little direction. Just as it had for my short stories, for the finished novel that felt unwound, for the screenplay that needed a little more Hey Martha, the technique was illuminating. It told me, I told myself, that healing was mine if I wanted it. Illumination came gradually – the technique isn’t magic – but when I felt stuck otherwise, it came.
I went looking for an electric shock of creativity at Bill’s workshop and found it. That much I knew right away. It took me some time, however, to realize that since I’d found it, it would be there for whatever I needed, pains artistic as well as pains traumatic, pains forced on me and pains I forced on myself.
Healing was mine if I wanted it, the technique assured me. It was already there in my hand.