Studio Spotlight: Gila Lyons

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This month we are thrilled to feature local writer, educator, and Creative Commentary facilitator, Gila Lyons. 

Gila Lyons' work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, Vox, The Huffington Post, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, The Forward, TabletFusion, Refinery29, and other publications. She teaches writing and literature at San Francisco State University, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com, on Facebook and Twitter. 

Tell us a little bit about your writing process...Is there a specific headspace or physical space you go to? What do you find helpful when you are writing?

I know it’s not good for “sleep hygiene” so I try not to do it too often, but when I really need to write, I do my best writing in bed. To really think and feel deeply and creatively I want to leave all physical distractions behind. Even a library has too many noises and discomforts – hard chairs, patrons whispering, computer keys tapping. I like to be in my room alone, in my bed, which is the safest and most comfortable place in my life. As a writer, I’m often working from home, but my friends know I’m really getting down to business when I say I’m “working from bed.” It hasn't always been this way, but now we have a bedroom and an office/guestroom, so I can have a “work bed” and a “sleep bed” and not totally destroy my ability to sleep in the place where I work. I also find it really helpful to listen to calming music, and to clean the house or cook or do something rather mindless and repetitive before I sit down to write. If I sit down and open my computer I can feel stuck, but if I go for a walk or do some cleaning, ideas will surface unbidden while my mind is focused on something else. You know how you can see constellations better out of the corner of your eye than straight on? I kind of feel that way about creative work – an essay or article I’m writing – I often get my best ideas out of peripheral thinking – when I’m dozing off or showering or driving and my brain is half-staring at something else. Then a line or structure will pop into my head and I will realize, Yes! That's it! I've actually sometimes dreamed last lines or paragraphs to pieces I'm working on. 

What are some topics that you feel particularly excited to write about? Why?

I’ve been writing about mental health, especially where it intersects with feminism and women’s lives, for over a decade. I feel really strongly about writing openly and with a lot of information about mental health issues in a way that is normalizing and de-stigmatizing. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, roughly 1 in 5 American adults, that’s about 43.8 million people, 18.5% of the population, experiences mental illness in a given year. But unlike physical illnesses, most people don’t talk about this when going though it, so people can feel very alone. When we write and speak about OCD, or post partum depression, or panic, we normalize it, and others can feel empowered to speak out and connect and seek treatment. If I can write beautifully from my own experience and about the challenges others face, turning pain into art, chaos into form, there is great redemptive power in both the writing and the reading. I’m also really committed to writing pieces that amplify marginalized voices – like those of people with disabilities, immigrants, and refugees. 

Does your writing intersect with your spirituality and/or Jewish practice? If so, in what ways? 

In Judaism the word is the most powerful creative force. GD created the whole world with words. This is why I love to write (and read) and to help others to write. You can create a world for yourself in which you feel safe, inspired, cared for, really however you want to feel, a world you understand and are understood, in which things happen more slowly, you feel more deeply, whatever it is. Writing is definitely the most powerful and regular spiritual practice in my life, in that it brings me close to myself, to others, and to something much bigger than me and us. It is also powerful to write and share writing in community, to know others in a raw, authentic, and deep way. 

What do you like about teaching at JSP?

I love starting the morning with ritual, and in community with song, prayer, introspection, writing, and sharing. The sharing, for me, is often the sweetest part, to really hear what is in people’s hearts in a way we don’t usually share. On the Wednesdays I teach at JSP I feel different for the rest of the day. I am more aware of myself, more compassionate with and open to others, more awake to my life. That’s really a lot of the benefit of writing – the practice of paying attention – to the external world, to oneself, and the people in one’s life. It also feels really right to connect with something ancient at the start of the day, something that predates our current sense of what is ‘normal’ everyday life. The prayers and chants and songs and texts we study engage us in a centries-old dialogue that feels grounding and rooted. There is so much craziness in the world right now, and it helps me to metabolize and make sense of it through a contemplative Jewish lens.

What have you got coming up?

In addition to teaching writing at San Francisco State University, and at Creative Commentary at The Jewish Studio Project every few Wednesdays, I’ll be teaching two classes at The Writing Salon in Berkeley this winter, Writing about the Body (1 session) and Introduction to Personal Essay (5 sessions). The classes will be rich, intimate, generative, and capped at 14, and you can register now! You can also contact me about teaching privately for your workplace, retreat, school, or group of friends.

Jeff Kasowitz