Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
Interviewed by Rafael Otto
Patti Digh (pronounced dye) believes that life is complex, not complicated. In an ongoing effort to unearth the creative in you, the best-selling author of Life Is A Verb, offers constant inspiration on her blog, 37 Days, and two new books, Four Word Self-Help and Creative Is A Verb.
Patti has written two business books on global leadership and diversity, one named a Fortune magazine “best business book for 2000,” and her comments have appeared on PBS, and in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, the New York Times, USAToday, the Washington Post, and London Financial Times, among other national and international publications. She speaks around the world on diversity, global business, and living intentionally.
Patti is a co-founder, with David Robinson, of The Circle Project, a consulting and training firm that partners with organizations and the people in them to help them work more effectively and authentically together across difference.
She lives with her husband, John Ptak, and their two daughters in Asheville, North Carolina.
Rafael Otto: Patti, could you tell me about your writing rant? I understand that you originally wrote it for yourself.
Patti Digh: I did, I was having a hard time finishing my book, Creative Is A Verb, for a number of reasons. The bottom line is that I needed to finish it and couldn’t sit the hell down and write. People ask me all the time: How do you write a successful blog? How do you write a book? I have no bloody idea. I think you have to ask: Why am I trying to write a book? Why not just sit down and write? So yes, I wrote most of the rant for myself, and it works as an outline for my thoughts on the process.
Rafael: Could you tell me more about your process for writing?
Patti: I’ll tell you the unflattering underbelly, how about that?
Rafael: That’s the best part.
Patti: As opposed to the pristine studio that I could tell you that I have that I don’t have (laughs).
Rafael: (Laughs). Writing rant number eight: Shut up about ideal conditions?
Patti: Yes. And the important step of writing to write. When I started writing 37 Days in January 2005, I wrote for eight hours a day. I’ve never been happier in my entire life. I remember having dinner with a friend, George Renwick, and he asked a very simple question: What do you love to do? I talked about the process of writing 37 Days in my own voice. I had previously written two business books that were not in my voice, but working on the blog gave me a sense of urgency. I found myself writing for my daughters, leaving them something from me, and about me, should I die. For the first time I was enamored with the process, writing forty hours per week working on one essay. It was extraordinary, the way that language took on a whole new meaning and began to move and shape my ideas. But I think it’s important to understand that I wasn’t writing to create a popular blog. I was writing for my two girls and didn’t care if someone else liked it or not. I didn’t know anyone was reading it. My friend and business partner, David Robinson, talks about the idea of being able to play two intentions at the same time on stage. You can either warn Hamlet or get the audience to love you, but you can’t do both. I was warning Hamlet. There was no audience and it was just fantastic.
Rafael: How do things look now?
Patti: I’ve lost that kind of energy, mainly because, after the first two years, a publisher approached me about making a book. That’s a fantastic thing, and the book became a beautiful artistic and collaborative process, but the process of finishing and promoting the book took me away from my writing. When I finally returned to working on my new books, I had the awareness of an audience. That was hard for me, and the rant came out of that. Annie Dillard said that you need to write like an orphan. Don’t worry about your Amazon page rank, getting on Oprah, all the rest, and that’s where I’m at right now. Just do the work, write to write. Part of my work is to open up space for others to create and publish their work, and I’ve continued that with my books out this fall. Many are getting their artwork published for the first time.
Rafael: Often it seems like you write about loss or trauma. I know you’ve been deeply affected by the death of family and friends. Could you tell me how that has impacted your work and writing?
Patti: The loss of my stepfather was a catalyst for my work on 37 Days. At a reading, someone recently asked me that question in a different way. He asked: Must we feel that kind of loss in order to learn? And that reminded me of a Madame Curie quote that talks about how learning requires that we be thrown off-balance. I don’t think it has to be death or loss, but being off-balance is definitely a place where learning can occur. Many consultants out there sell the idea that life is beautiful no matter what, that you can always fly first class, but I don’t necessarily share that point of view. A story doesn’t move without an obstacle, and if you minimize or ignore or deny the obstacle, you don’t have much of a story. I’m interested in the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, the things that come out of disequilibrium. Over the summer, my friend Nina died from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and that really set me off-balance, particularly the weekend she died. I continue to look for what I gained from that process. I wonder why we keep ourselves ignoring that, burying that. Why not bring it up? I’m also interested in the idea of impermanence. Maybe I’m Buddhist and don’t even know it.
Rafael: The concept that death is not really an end, but instead a moment of change.
Patti: Did I tell you about my new tattoo? I’m like the old lady with a tattoo now (laughs).
Rafael: (Laughs). No, tell me about it.
Patti: I got it for a number of reasons. It’s three dandelions. When you’re a kid, they are magical. You run toward them, use them to make wishes. Then, as an adult they turn into mere weeds. I think the bulk of my work is to see the magical in the ordinary. John, my husband, and my two daughters, Emma and Tess, are my three human survival units. The dandelions have thirty-seven stems to reflect the concept of 37 Days, and there are two pieces floating off, one for my father who died when I was young, and the other for Nina who died recently. The idea of impermanence is why I bring it up, because Buddha asked three very important questions. How well did you live? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go? These three questions are part of my tattoo, drawn in my own handwriting to remind myself of them everyday. The last one is tough because we want to hold on. So, what is it to let go? Often we hold on to our stories of pain and it’s a challenge to let go of those stories.
Rafael: Do you feel like the process of writing has helped you with the process of letting go?
Patti: That’s a great question. I do. I don’t think I knew myself before I started writing 37 Days. I had a lot of experiences, traveled the world, met fascinating people, but I wasn’t paying attention, looking closely. The act of writing, painting, creating music and rhythm, meditation, mindfulness, whatever it is that gets you noticing, is a powerful way to live. What’s compelling to me, the thing that matters most, is the quality of our engagement right now. We (Americans) are very future-oriented people. How do you pay attention to the sunlight on the wall, coming through the window right now? It’s beautiful. But paying attention is hard to do. You have to slow down to do it.
Rafael: When reading Life Is A Verb, it seems like there are two stories running parallel through the book, closely intertwined. You have all of your essays and stories gathered as a collection, but there is also a running first person narrative with a real sense of discovery.
Patti: I hadn’t thought of that, that’s beautiful. I remember writing a story a couple of years ago and feeling the moment of connection when I realized what the threads were in the story.
Rafael: What kind of story was it?
Patti: A story about my mother called “Laid To Rest In Suit Number Nine.” I’ve found that when you investigate what it is that makes you what you are, you can have real “aha” moments. Especially when you tease apart the pieces of the story. You can see yourself in it, but it doesn’t happen unless you do it consistently. If you write, the meaning will come to you, the thread will emerge. The stories come forward as a result of doing it over and over again. And you don’t write a story about loss, you write with detail. What are the stories in Life Is A Verb about? I don’t know until the story is written, I don’t know what the thread is until I sit down with those intimate, tiny moments in the story.
Rafael: Has that continued with your recent work?
Patti: Four Word Self-Help is a wee, cute little book, beautifully illustrated with a hundred and one original pieces of art. The book came out of a sense of frustration over the idea that we are a country hell-bent on self-help. Self-help is vastly different from self-knowledge. When we are in self-help mode, we are looking to others for the answer. So the title is kind of tongue-in-cheek. You have the answers, and you don’t need to seek out gurus. It’s important that we sit down with ourselves. A while back I started a Twitter dialogue in response to the fad diet craze, and my first post was: Eat Less, Move More. Out of that rant came fifty or sixty four-word phrases. People started asking me to collect them. The book has twelve categories with very simple actions that help you be in community and love more. Each section starts with a short story, followed by the four-word pieces. It became a way to say that life is not that difficult. Life is complex, not complicated, and most of what we need in life can be solved with very simple actions. Creative Is A Verb looks at how we minimize ourselves in the world, how we lose the creative spark and set false expectations for ourselves. Here’s a quote from the book that I think sums things up: “When I say be creative, I don’t mean you should all become great painters and great poets, I simply mean let your life be a painting, let your life be a poem.” A big part of that is looking at the creative spark in every day experiences.
Rafael: And through that process bringing a sense of mindfulness to everyday life.
Patti: Yes, asking people to pay attention, to be mindful. Creative Is A Verb features six suggestions, six creative commitments:
1) Be ordinary
2) See more
3) Get present
4) Catch fire
5) Clear ground
6) Let go
I think it’s important to ask: What do I care about? How do I put that out to the world? How can I make sure I’m seeing beyond what’s right in front of me?
Rafael: How do you work on these creative commitments on a personal level?
Patti: I’m always working on them and I need to do more. I’ve had an incredible two years of being in engagement with people. I get thousands and thousands of emails about Life Is A Verb and engaging with people is fantastic. It takes a lot of time and is also one of the greatest benefits of this work, the extraordinary relationships with people around the world. I think it might be time to go back under cover for a bit, return to writing, and not be so externally focused. That’s a challenge, because the responsibility when you create art is to make it accessible to others. I’ve had a great time doing that, yet you can see the frustration in the writing rant.
Rafael: Can you talk about the role of technology for you? Will that change?
Patti: I can see myself spending less time online. I’ll step back a bit from Twitter and Facebook, and just be a hermit. That’s what I’ll be! (Laughs). Truthfully, I’m torn about it because I love the community and the conversation, but the recent process of getting both books out left me feeling fragmented. If I can reclaim the consistent, amazing process I had when I started 37 Days, that would be a great thing. Probably though, it requires stepping back from the audience.
Rafael: Patti, I wish you the best of luck with that. And congratulations on the new books.
Patti: It was great talking with you. Thanks for the opportunity.