Don’t Spare Yourself


Lydia Bear Ishmael next to her just finished bathroom mural, 2017

Okay, so… I’m still taking violin lessons. Along with my violin lessons I discovered another life lesson, as well as a good lesson for writers.

If I want to learn how to play the violin, I have to be willing to play poorly. Like I remind my writing students all the time — be willing to write several shitty drafts before the story works, before you “sound” pleasing. 

The enjoyment found in writing several shitty drafts, as well as playing crude on the violin, is indispensable to progress in both. I delight in holding an idea and seeing how it comes out on the page. I enjoy holding the violin and bow to make a combination of legitimate and illegitimate sounds. Playing badly with my violin (I make my dogs howl), is essential to learning how to play.

So, we must be willing to write several shitty drafts till they no longer are. But if we don’t enjoy this part of our writing life, we are not likely to write for long.

My violin teacher (bless her heart) keeps saying:  “That’s great, Julie,” as I play.

I doubt her. Just as so many of my students and clients doubt me when I encourage them.

Inevitably, I asked her what many of my students and clients ask me: “Are you just saying that to encourage me?”

“No,” She says.

“What would you say if I was not doing so ‘great?,’ ” I ask.

“I would let you know.” (I believe she would, just as I guide others with honest encouragement.) I know too, as she does, anyone can learn to write or play the violin.

So, we spoke a little about shitty first drafts and playing poorly on the violin. She shared a lesson her teacher told her as she struggled with a difficult musical piece. Her teacher advised:

“Don’t Spare Yourself.”

Basically play shitty with all you’ve got. And keep playing shitty, with all you’ve got till the sound comes together and you have something worth listening to. Or, you have something you feel good about.

Don’t Spare Yourself. Have fun; get into it! Play poorly with all you’ve got. In writing, get the entire story down, every thought, idea, and detail you can come up with. Don’t hesitate and don’t hold back. Keep writing shitty drafts till you have something that works. If we hold back and write sparingly, the rules of the trade, or our egos, dictate our hands and mind and we will never give it our all.

“I say this to myself with everything now,” she shared as I packed my violin.

The morning of my violin lesson had been a rough one. I made the mistake of checking the news on Twitter. The endangered species act is, well, endangered. Sigh. And, life close-in for me, though beautiful, continues to be full of uncertainty.

But the lesson uplifted me. I met the bow to the right string, several times (my first violin lesson). She repeatedly said, “Great! Great Julie. That’s it.”  And, well, I left with the willingness to not spare myself with whatever arises in my practices, and in life. (At least for today).

A few other essentials that you may find helpful in writing and life:

  • My habitual (old) mind tells me: you are not going to get this, remember this, or create anything decent. I nod an acknowledgment to these thoughts and keep playing.
  • Sometimes when my teacher says, “Great, yes, you got it!” I haven’t a clue how — But I trust that my body and soul do know.
  • In having the bow meet the string, the bow needs to be ever so slightly heavier against the string in the middle of the bow. This is because the bow bends in at the center. So, If I don’t want to keep having my bow slide about on the string, I have to add “just a bit of pressure” when the bow is in the center. Okay! Is this even possible? Remember, at this point I am simply trying to get the bow to the right string! Here is how I put just a bit of pressure at the right moment (and I just love this!): I think the bow as heavier as it reaches its middle point. For me this is the intuitive, kinesthetic aspect of playing, writing and living — hold in your mind the practice and intention and then just play, just write! Don’t spare yourself.
  • A good writing, music or spiritual teacher, accompanied by a bit of enthusiasm, makes the effort possible. Makes our efforts, effortless. Find that good teacher, and keep her close-in until you are ready to move on to the next good teacher.
  • Trust yourself, trust your body, trust your soul. And move toward that which calls you — no matter what! and recite the mantra: “I won’t spare myself!”
  • Keep doing this one good, fun, crazy thing (be it playing the violin at 60 or writing a novel) that makes a clearing for you in your life.



Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.


Photo by Lydia Bear Ishmael

Photo by Lydia Bear Ishmael

Check out my home page for upcoming retreats and conferences. I am offering a monthly circle, starting in July: Here, Take This Gift, based on the core teachings of Parker J Palmer. We meet once a month on the first Thursday in Prairie du Sac. I am also available for one-to-one consultation and counseling.  608-963-0724





And, I stumbled upon this poem while doing some research for my novel. I was wondering about the sound of trees. And found the message haunting and timely.

The Sound of Trees
                            BY ROBERT FROST
I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.


13 thoughts on “Don’t Spare Yourself

  1. Hi Julie,
    Thank you for publishing the poems. Do you know where the poem by Martha Postelwaite is published? It’s lovely. I haven’t been able to find its source.

    Thank you very much,

  2. But not today.
    Now compare that proverb to this famous aphorism.
    It reminds us to take precautionary measures, so we don’t end up with bad results.
    You create them.
    Washington’s message was that it’s wiser to be upfront and deal with the consequences.
    Want a few more.
    It meant that the person was versatile and adept at many things.
    Then use it as a guideline to stay focused on your general theme.
    An aphorism is a literary device that uses a short, clever saying to express a general truth.
    Now compare that proverb to this famous aphorism.
    So what do you do.
    Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
    Washington’s message was that it’s wiser to be upfront and deal with the consequences.
    Finally, Actions speak louder than words is another classic example.
    Why is this stuff important.
    Build a storyline around that saying.

  3. Doubt is the beginning not the end of wisdom.
    It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness Link to proverb.
    Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.
    Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned Link to proverb.
    Don’t teach your Grandma to suck eggs Link to proverb.
    Forgive and forget.
    Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration Link to proverb.

  4. Christmas comes but once a year.
    All is grist that comes to the mill Link to proverb.
    Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains Link to proverb.
    For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the man was lost.
    A golden key can open any door Link to proverb.
    Business before pleasure.
    Thou shalt not kill Link to proverb.

  5. Aphorisms often use metaphors or creative imagery to express ideas.
    This quote originated from Thomas Howell in New Sonnets and Pretty Pamphlets.
    There is no try.
    This also reminds me of a precept by Sir Edwin Sandys, a politician who helped establish Jamestown, Virginia.
    Other Common Examples of Aphorisms
    search bar with “what use aphorism.” written
    From there, you can build your story around it.
    Are you in.
    It’s a great saying, but it’s not something you’d necessarily repeat over the dinner table.
    It originally read, Count not they chickens that unhatched be…
    It’s one of my favorite aphorisms because it’s simple but yet powerful.
    Aphorism Examples in Everyday Speech
    Shifting gears a little, let’s talk about one of the world’s greatest aphorists – Benjamin Franklin.
    But these days.
    And get this.
    They’re written in countless books and passed down as folk wisdom.

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