Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Author Gigi Amateau: Solar Plexus Surrender. Connecting With Your Story

I met Gigi at my very first ever event as a writer. The Shifter was just about to be released and I was part of a "moveable feast" at the SIBA Conference (Southern Independent Booksellers Association). Gigi had a book coming out as well, and we exchanged copies during the big book signing giveaway event. Gigi was a delightful woman and I'm happy to have met her, but even happier because I'd never have read her book, A Certain Strain of Peculiar, if I hadn't. It was outside my normal reading genres so I doubt I would have stumbled across it. Gigi writes in this lovely lyrical style that captures a Southern tone so well. And it was a great story about a girl coming to terms with who she was.

So today on How They Do It, here's Gigi Amateau to help you learn how to breathe -- and connect with your story at the same time.

Take it away Gigi...

This morning I am wondering if the buoyant, new chair in my office can help me become a better writer. I am wondering, too, why I woke up today with the words: solar plexus big and expansive in my mind. And, I am wondering what it means to surrender.

My vivid first encounter with the protagonist in my first novel, Claiming Georgia Tate, in no way relates to office furniture but has everything to do with solar plexus and everything to do with surrender. I cherish that initial meeting with my character and, even now, fourteen years later I still examine its meaning for my writing life. Never before with any piece of writing had a character seized me so, as Georgia Tate did that day. Like a riptide’s pull, I knew about and avoided such mysteries, feared being swept far away from all I knew.

One August morning at Edisto Island, South Carolina, I went way out into the calm sea, all alone. I disregarded my fear of jellyfish and decided to swim half a mile to the pier – the illusive pier. I switched off the JAWS soundtrack that has played perpetually in my mind anytime I venture near a natural or manmade body of water, ever since seeing the movie thirteen times during the summer of 1975. A fleet of shrimp boats and a pod of dolphins carried on around me. Unaware of a single wave in ocean or mind, I focused only on the sound of my breath, the slicing of my hands through the water. I forgot, even about the pier, I just breathed and swam. And then, some previously unknown cavern of my imagination lit up, invited me inside. Audible snippets of a story broke the surface of my consciousness.

“Sometimes, he goes out too deep,” I heard Georgia Tate say with that part of being human that translates the symbols and images of the mind into sounds that need no ears. I treaded water for a long while and hovered there, hoping to go unnoticed by the plot unfolding inside me. Somehow, I had literally swum into a story.

When I finally left the ocean, I went straight to my blanket, took up my pencil and notebook, and wrote for hours. My family fussed at me all day about spoiling our vacation. As much as I love them, I barely heard their pleas for me to stop writing and come on. Something new had happened, and I couldn’t leave Georgia Tate. Writing the memory down here now, the moment looks significantly less significant that it was, than it still is.

The question of what to call that experience - flow? the zone? a real imaginary world? – doesn’t interest me as much as do the questions: When I have but twenty minutes or an hour or three to tread in the infinite ocean of my own imagination, how do I get back there? Where is the sure and clear entrance into to those unexplored caverns – those caverns where the stories live?

For years, I believed swimming – moving – held the answer. Surely, strenuous, focused physical activity, used as a pre or post writing practice, offered the open access I sought. While I do think moving - walking by the river, practicing yoga in the dark morning, riding horses in the mountains, or just shaking my body around – facilitates my writing, I only recently asked myself why moving helps me. I think, and this is a newish theory for me, I think it’s because when I move, I breathe. I mean breathe right, filling my lungs from my belly to my solar plexus.

When I breathe right, I surrender to the reality that to be aware of myself and the world, to connect to stories and symbols and words and whispers, I cannot hold my breath or take rapid shallow breaths. I must fill my belly up with oxygen to send life to my heart and my mind; I must empty my belly out to expel that which I no longer need.

Try this now: sitting just as you are, place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. Without changing anything observe your body. Are you breathing? Is your mouth open? Where in your body do you feel tension? Watch your inhale. Which hand rises?

Most of us go through our days unaware of how we breathe. We hold our breath, then gasp for air or we take quick, shallow breaths into our chests. Shallow breathing – chest breathing - restricts the amount of oxygen the lungs have to distribute throughout the body and reduces the efficiency of our exhale. Exhaling accounts for 70% of the body’s waste elimination – seriously. When we fail to breathe right, we hold onto waste. Shallow breathing signals to the brain that your body is under stress. So, sustained chest breathing prevents us from fully relaxing.

If our bodies are tense or tight or stressed, if we aren’t surrendering to our need for full, deep, and regular breaths, then how can we surrender to the story? How prepared are we to cover miles and miles of unexplored creative territory if we withhold oxygen from our bodies and our brains, if we hold our waste inside?

Try this now: sit comfortably, place both hands on your belly, and allow your fingers to just barely entwine. Close your mouth. Exhale through your nose, drawing your navel into your spine. As you inhale, slowly fill your abdomen and let your fingers rise apart. As you exhale, again pull your belly toward your back; let your fingers meet. Just sit, watching your breath, watching your beautiful belly rise into your solar plexus, then fall into complete emptiness. Do you notice any tension in your shoulders, your neck, your anywhere? Mentally send your next inhale into those tense pockets; mentally release all that stress as you exhale. Take seven full belly breaths without worrying about anything else.

Try this now: write.

Once upon a time a haiku guy told me to surrender to the haiku by emptying my heart then letting it fill up. It has taken me oh so long to realize the haiku guy was inviting me to breathe, exactly as the ocean invited me, just as that new chair invites me now – an invitation to emptying and filling, falling and rising, exhaling and inhaling, surrendering to what the heart needs and what the story needs, too.

Gigi Amateau is the author of the young adult novels, A Certain Strain of Peculiar and Claiming Georgia Tate and the middle-grade novel, Chancey of the Maury River, all from Candlewick Press. She lives in Richmond, Virginia where she serves on the Board of Directors of James River Writers . Connect with Gigi through her website, blog, Twitter, or Facebook.


  1. Beautifully written, as always! Thanks for the reminder, Gigi. It's amazing how we can take the breath for granted and that by simply shifting our focus, we can transform even the most difficult of moments.

  2. you are a treasure, Gigi. thank you!

  3. Thanks Russ and Anonymous for reading my post. I really appreciate your comments!

  4. Great post Gigi, thanks so much for it.

    I know for myself, the decision not to listen to music on my daily run has influenced my creative focus when I write, tremendously.

    It's like when I'm running I'm in this sustained period of both pain and comfort, and for some reason it seems like the ideal state for my subconscious mind to form the words that I'll access later on.

  5. Thanks Gigi for stopping bye! good to have you on the blog.

  6. Sam - oh yeah, I totally get what you mean on running. Due to a horseback riding injury I no longer run, but my experience with the running-writing connection echoes yours. Janice! Thanks so much for having me on The Other Side of the Story. I'm such a fan of your blog and your work!