The Great Escape—Storytelling, Software and the Pleasure of Other Worlds

"You may tune into the universal storehouse of knowledge at will and take from it knowledge which you did not have the previous moment. Every genius and mystic understands this and uses it continually."
 ~ Walter Russell, lectures to IBM executives, 1935

I can’t recall most of my grade school teachers, but my seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Oscarson, is one I’ll never forget. For Mrs. Oscarson did two things for me that would go on to shape the woman I’d become. First, she assigned a major project—to write a novella. Second, she sent me and a few other kids to coding class instead of math. At the time, I had no idea how the two projects were related and would eventually define my life.

I’d just finished reading, The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jane M. Auel, and instantly became obsessed with ancient historical fiction. Up to that point I’d been a fantasy girl, and still am, but something about Ayla’s adventures in a world so foreign and so ancient, awakened a desire in me to understand civilizations from the past. When Mrs. Oscarson assigned us our novella, I took on the project with great enthusiasm, enjoying the research as much as the writing. The story itself ended up being some sort of cheeky romance where the main characters fall in love while stranded in the wilderness. However, it was the process that sparked something inside of me, because for the first time in my life, I was creating my own world. I loved being lost in that place, thinking about my story even when I wasn’t writing, and wanting nothing but to get back to the typewriter (yeah, I’m that old) to write the next chapter.

While writing my first novella in English class, during math class I was down in the basement of the school (they seemed to put computers in basements back then) learning to code. It was 1985 and my little Catholic school had been the recipient of a set of Mac IIEs and some money for a computer science teacher. Mrs. McCrae (another teacher I will always remember) was a mom at the school who knew how to code, and she became that school’s first CS teacher. Using BASIC, she taught us how to program, eventually teaching us to use the software for graphic drawings. One of the first assignments she gave us was to write short stories for the kindergarteners, with pictures that would move when they pressed the space bar.

In hindsight, I’m not sure it was a coincidence that my first programming assignments were to tell stories.

Just like my novella, I found that time passed quickly while coding. My software was a world in which I was the ultimate creator. Nothing happened unless I typed it. Of course, sometimes what I typed was nonsense and didn’t work, but even trying to figure out where I went wrong was also an act in which the world around me was suspended, and I was oblivious to the other worries and cares of my life.

When I turned eighteen, I chose to pursue a career in software over storytelling for the plain reason that I wanted to eat. Like it or not, there isn’t a lot of money in storytelling, but even back in the early 90’s, one could make a good living writing software. I love programming as much as I love writing, and the act of writing a story feels the same as writing a program. In both cases time stands still and everything, even the incessant need to go to the bathroom, is forgotten.

I enjoyed working as a software engineer, and when I left it to raise my children, one of the hardest things was losing the chance to dive in and go into the flow. Small children demand to be seen and heard, here and in the now. There’s no escaping them, except when they’re asleep. At first, I would nap when they did, but one day, I decided to write a story instead. What evolved was a renewal of my writing, and it would be this act that gave my intellect the sustenance it needed in order for me to be satisfied at home with the kids. As they moved on to pre-school, I found myself writing more, escaping to worlds that had nothing to do with diapers, discipline or duty.

I’d discovered the power of imagination that underlies storytelling and software development at an early age, but I’ve only recently discovered the key to stepping in and out of those worlds with ease—meditation. Regular time spent in meditation, allowing the mind to rest, and going past the laundry list of life, enables me to switch on my imagination when I need it. I discovered this practice as an attempt to become a more mindful parent. I knew how I didn’t want to parent but had no idea what sort of parent I wanted to be. Jon and Maya Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings, suggested a meditative practice which I have been pursuing for fifteen years since. I still sit down everyday in contemplation, even if I don’t think I have time. Sometimes I can’t seem to relax, and the effort seems useless. Regardless still I seek out solitude, even if for a few minutes, and allow myself to just be.

The practice of regular meditation has taken my ability to imagine and innovate to a level I never understood when I was younger. Yes, I could write code and tell a decent story, and I enjoyed both acts very much. But I was always putting myself on the product, meaning I’d put my intellect in front of my imagination and force the storyline, or the software algorithm, around that end goal. Often this led to forced results, and even though the story was written, or my software compiled and worked, the product wasn’t beautiful, and sometimes the process was fraught with angst and awkwardness, thus destroying the bliss I would feel while creating. Most creators call this a block and when it occurs, we’ll try anything to bust through it.

Meditation has taught me that the way through a block isn’t to bust through, but rather to pullback and find another path. To consider that the block is there because I’ve been travelling down the wrong road in my imagination, and there’s a different solution I have yet to see. One of my favorite modern thinkers, Charles Eisenstein, suggests that rather than telling a story, perhaps we need to get out of the way allow the story to tell itself. I took his advice to heart when writing my latest trilogy and finally, thirty-three years after my first novella in seventh grade, I’ve written a work of ancient fiction that is beautiful and worthy of sharing with the world. (I don’t have an exact pub date, but my publisher, Literary Wanderlust, is shooting to release the first book, Origins, in fall of 2019)

However, the most profound part of this experience was the actual writing of the novel. Instead of planning the entire story, I meditated first, emptying my mind of all that was unnecessary. Once I was empty, I sat at the computer and opened my mind to the story, letting it pour through me. There were days when I didn’t even know what I’d written, and reading it later was a treat, like reading a novel written by someone else. I often didn’t know the next twist and turn. Being lost in such a world was life changing for me. Of course I did plenty of research, the story takes place in Ancient Egypt and in order to build the world I had to understand the culture and politics of that time. But I let the characters tell the story, and this is what made all the difference with regards to the experience. Never once did I have a block, and I actually wrote the first draft of all THREE books in nine months. Thus the Song of the King’s Heart trilogy was born. Such a thing had never happened to me before.

This then, is the reality of a state of flow—not only is it timeless, it is filled with possibilities the knowing mind cannot know.

In 2016, I was recruited to be the interim CTO for a small startup. (I live in the Bay Area, so startups are everywhere, like dandelions in the Midwest) In that role I realized that I still have a love for programming and all things tech. I also realized that in my eighteen years raising my children and focusing on my writing, a lot had changed, and I needed some schooling to be the CTO that was needed. I left that startup and began the process of retraining, taking business classes as well as intro to programming and advanced programming in Java at my local college.

At first the assignments were very easy, this is my second time through after all. I know how to code. But halfway through my first semester, the instructor gave us a meatier assignment. One that required planning, outlines and several functions and classes. In other words, a real program. I approached the work do as I’d often done in my youth, brute forcing my way in, but I found I couldn’t begin. I couldn’t enter that state of flow. As I began to panic, thinking I no longer had the ability to lose myself in the world of bits and bytes, I recalled how I’d approached writing The Song of the King’s Heart trilogy. I left my computer and sat down to meditate. An hour later I went to the desk and wrote my code. It compiled on the second try and worked perfectly within a few hours.

The best part is discovering that the flow of writing stories was the same flow as writing code. That meditation would be the key to entering such a place with ease wasn’t something I’d been taught, but this isn’t new advice. I recently discovered a copy of business lectures given to IBM executives in 1935 by the late thinker, Walter Russell, who had this to say, “Whenever you receive instruction, it will help to convert that information into knowledge more easily if you will give one hour of each day to quiet and reverent meditation in order that you may consciously make a pattern of your life from day to day…you will have many technicians here from universities who will tell you everything about the machines and about the business, but perhaps never again during your term will you hear what I am telling you, so be wise and let it sink deeply into your consciousness.”

Tis true that none of my instructors have yet to advise me to meditate before setting to my work, but I now write all my programs this way and every assignment is a joy. I think after all these years, I’m finally ready to write beautiful and meaningful software, as well as beautiful and meaningful stories. It just took a great diversion down the alternative path of mindful parenting, to become who I really am.