Storytelling and the Brain


This article — beautifully written — says so, so much about how storytelling allows us access to our brains. Even though Owen is autistic and relates almost exclusively to emotions through Disney movie characters, I think it also opens a window in to how the rest of us require the non-reality of fables, myth, play and dream states almost as much as we require the words themselves to better function in reality.

Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney

From the story, when Owen falls in love: Owen nods immediately. He’s on it. “I have a song.” He explains it is from a movie called “Quest for Camelot,” an Arthurian romance a few Disney expats worked on for Warner Brothers in 1998. “The song is called ‘Looking Through Your Eyes.’ ” He explains that he listens to the song every morning “to make sure I don’t forget to see the world through her eyes.”

My Ghostly Roommates

I believe it was, perhaps, about the time I was peering into the kitchen sink filled with a pea soup-like effluvia when warnings from both my landlord and a friend’s toddler popped back into my memory.

November 2, 2012, 11am: Move onto houseboat.

November 2, 2012, 11.22am: Landlord: “Bret Harte, Jack London, historic houseboat, blah blah blah, ghosts.”

Ghosts. Pshaw.

Likeahouse: Houseboat Ghosts

Living room, aka, portal to the ethereal underworld.

February 11, 2013, 7.31pm: Friend’s toddler: “I’m going to go walk around the boat, Daddy, and I’ll go to the outside and see the birds and then I’m gonna go down the stairs to the downstairs and and and — Oh … ghosts!”

Ohhh-kay. Still, ignoring it. I mean, ghosts, you know? Who believes in ghosts?

A few months later, there I was, living on a four-bedroom houseboat once owned by Jack London. My houseboat had a hot tub, sauna, wood-burning stove, barbecue on the back deck overlooking Mt Tam, and every modern amenity known to rental-property-kind. And I. Could. Not. Find. A. Renter. Before my friend and then boyfriend arrived, I was living in 1543 square feet by myself. Well, by my corporeal self.

In my one attempt to rent the room out on Airbnb, the entire houseboat pretty much disintegrated. The hot tub broke. The downstairs plumbing backed up. The upstairs plumbing backed up. The garbage disposal broke, leaving the contents of the kitchen sink looking like the aforementioned pea soup. Three days later, back in my North Carolina loft, that garbage disposal broke.

I started to consider whether my friend’s toddler and landlord knew something I didn’t. I consulted my most Ghostly Knowledgeable Friend (Steve was an extra in The Exorcist, Yvonne created a documentary about the afterlife; I’ll let them duke it out one day as to which one wins the GKF title). A friend did a remote energy reading and reported I did, in fact, have several entities living aboard with me, at least one of which was sumo wrestler size. They weren’t unfriendly, she reported, just took up a lot of space.

Here’s what it feels like to have several large spectral entities (allegedly) living with you — alone — on a houseboat: Scary, especially at night. Kind of fascinating. Frustrating.

Ghosts on a Houseboat

My kitchen sink, sans Exorcist pea soup-like effluvia.

I never saw any apparitions or felt any spectral presence. It did kinda feel like my houseboat had … an echo, maybe? An intention, perhaps.

I can’t believe I’m about to use this word, but it really did feel like I had a constant stream of … omens. (Yes, I said it.) Almost like warnings or coincidences that were coming so fast and furious, I was meant to pay attention.

It felt kinda like waking up from one of those sweat-inducing dreams you just know meant something deep and meaningful, but you just can’t decipher it. I still don’t know whether or not I believe in ghosts, but I do believe in our brain’s ability to use our subconscious (which doesn’t speak English, or any language) to tell us something in imagery and archetypes. I read Tarot cards, not for any supernatural wisdom, but because they help me gain access to those iconographic far reaches of my brain.

Here’s what a conversation with my ghost felt/sounded like:

Me: Maybe I should turn on the heat. My houseboat feels kind of cold. And something’s just not quite right …

Ghost: Oh, hello!

Me: Ghost? Is that you?

Ghost: Yuppers.

Me:  I should have known by the telltale eerieness.

Ghost: Well, I have something I want to tell you! (Waves ghost wand of creepiness around.)

Me: What? What?! Seriously, this is getting freaky. The stopped-up sink, everything breaking, finding coins all over my house … Just tell me!

Ghost: You need to know that … Boo!!

Me: Fuck! Stop doing that!

Ghost: Teehee. Seriously, it’s boring up here. Throw me a ghost-bone, man.

Me: Okay, I’m all ears. I mean, just *tell* me.

Ghost: I want to tell you that mphwffwwmmph ggrllplmmph and be sure you don’t mmprhmphew. BoooOooooOoooo!

Me: Jesus! Can you be a little more obscure? Is this some sort of weird ghost test?

Ghost: Yes!

Me: You can be a real asshat sometimes, Ghost, you know that?

Ghost: You do realize I can haunt you for the rest of your life?

Me: Sigh. Yes, yes, you’re in charge.

Ghost: Now that’s what I’m talking about! I’ve given you enough ghost hints; now it’s up to you to figure out what to do.

I could be inventing all of this in my head. Ghosts or ghostly intentions don’t exist. (Right?) Like in a dream, I’m sure I’m just looking for the signs I most want to see. Coins all over my house all of a sudden (including a five pence coin from the UK)? Bad omens on the way to work every single Monday morning? (Like, really bad omens — my uncle dying, my tooth breaking in half and costing me $1628, my Franciscan tau cross from Assisi falling off my rearview mirror for the first time in seven years.)

You know what? I don’t really give a crap. There’s not enough magic in adult life; I like that I got to experience (even pretend-experience) some firsthand. That’s the thing about magic: the best kind of magic is when its realness is debatable.

Now that I’ve, ahem, passed on from the houseboat, I miss my ghosts sometimes. I hope they’re doing well, and that they’re at peace and happy. I wish I’d been able to speak Ghost better, and that I could have heard them out. Sometimes I wonder if I would have quit that job and moved to England if not for all of the omens and signs while I was on the houseboat. But I’m here now. I’m in a brand-new building with no ancient walls in which my ghosts could settle in. I’m thankful, and I’m happy. I hope they’re equally at peace.

Why I Became a Guidebook Author

Responding to Lonely Planet author Celeste Brash’s #lpmemories hashtag, a reader reminded me of why I became a guidebook author.

The job has been talked about quite a bit recently in the news, so I figured I could share some background on the process, the job itself, and the reasons why it was the best and worst decision of my life. (Tweet explained in a moment.)

I became a Lonely Planet author in 2002, worked on over two dozen titles since, was the ‘Author Liaison Manager’ for a spell in 2006 (imagine a den mother for unruly guidebook authors), and I have heard every variation of, “Ooooh, you’re so lucky!” or “You have the best job in the world!” or “I wish I could do that!” Mick Jagger has said if he wasn’t a rock star, he would want our job. The best I was ever paid by Lonely Planet was to co-lead the two ‘Bluelist’ competitions in 2006 and 2007. The prize? Winning the chance to do our job for a week.

Alex Leviton on the road

Lost. Again. Researching Lonely Planet Tuscany & Umbria for the third time.

It’s true. We get paid to travel. We’re our own bosses. We work in our pajamas, whatever hours we want, and the million+ characters required for the average assignment magically jump into our computers while we’re lying on a beach in Bora Bora, mai tai in hand.

And yes, you’re right: that view of the job is absolutely correct (well, more or less). We do have those mai tai moments. However (and contrary to surprisingly popular opinion), we don’t have them without an absolute unbelievable amount of work. As another LP author friend also puts it, “we have bad travel experiences so you don’t have to.” Unlike the newer generation of travel bloggers, we aim to fade into the background, our work taking the limelight.

Yes, we stay in castles and monasteries, befriend Franciscan friars and aforementioned rock stars, and we visit far-flung locations and the behind-the-scenes world that few travelers see: police stations, bus depots, far too many laundromats.

And we’ve had more moments of being lost than any sane human could ever imagine. More moments of loneliness, confusion, and panic than most any normal job.

Among our ranks, many of us have ended up in the hospital for our jobs (me, twice). We’ve also had deaths. And brain injuries. And malaria, beatings, and robberies. And incredibly long, boring, lonely days in front of computer screens, frustrated by technology and unbearable deadlines and tourist boards.

A few hours after Lonely Planet announced it had cut almost a quarter of its staff (and most of the editorial and publishing departments of the Melbourne and Oakland offices), I saw this exchange on the Travel Bloggers Facebook group:

  • (Blogger #1): I’d say the best thing about working for Lonely Planet is that it looks damn good on a cv. And making a living out of travelling is of course great, but it just pays better elsewhere.
  • (Second blogger to first blogger): Sigh. Yes, I have read the accounts of how hard LP authors work. Though I do have to confess that once upon a time, long before I was a travel blogger, and had read those accounts, I did envy those who wrote the guides. 2 hours ago · Like
If you’ve ever written a guidebook, you would understand why I had to respond.
  • Alex Leviton: How it looks on my CV was about … 6.2% of it. Nice side effect, but if I did it for that, I would have quit sooner than Sarah Palin. If you really want to know why we do it: We love information. Passionately and somewhat obsessively. One LP author speaks, I kid you not, at least 12 languages. We get to know the history of a place better than almost anyone, and we get to meet and interview hundreds of locals. Our Haiti author moved to Port-au-Prince for fun, b/c he felt so passionately about the culture. Often we travel undercover so we can bring you the most unbiased info possible, unless it serves our readers not to. I once spent four hours touring the St. Francis of Assisi Basilica with a Zambian Franciscan friar, delving into every artistic and religious detail from an insider. For most LP authors, no amount of money or glamor can beat those kinds of experiences.

To be a guidebook author, you need to be a little nuts. I’m sure most of us would admit we have a slight masochistic streak. In another time, I think many of my colleagues would have become explorers or warriors.

A decade or so ago, I got a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. I had dreams of working at a magazine, or maybe for UNHCR. I applied to the local newspaper, to write for Koko the signing gorilla, to teach journalism in Ethiopia. I wanted to fight the good fight and Share Important Information with the world.

And then I became a travel writer.

Mostly, I fell into it by accident, meeting LP folks at a journalism job fair. I’d traveled fairly extensively by then, helped start two magazines, but certainly didn’t have the master’s in African Studies or blog dedicated to Afghanistan like other authors. I could be an editor, sure. But I realized a) travel writing had changed my life and perspective on the world way more than any newspaper or magazine article ever had and b) I wasn’t ever going to be a great reporter. Other people are way, way better at reporting health news or writing award-winning pieces about Alzheimer’s patients. I’m good at connecting — and helping others connect — with people all over the world.

Thirteen years later, I’ve contributed to about two dozen books. Every single time, I said it was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I wouldn’t put myself through another project. Parts of my life invariably fell apart while I was working these 100-hour weeks. How could they not? I regularly worked around the clock, once for 34 straight hours. Relationships ended. Friends had babies and lost siblings when I was on the road. From my hostel, I would send them congratulatory emails or call with my condolences.

I’d arrive home, only to have my normal life close enough to tease me with its full nights of sleep and downtime that felt Sisyphusianly far. I’d surround myself with as much as I could from my journeys — coconut milk if I was writing about the Caribbean, gelato if I’d been researching Italy.

My life has become more deeply enriched because of my experiences, but also quite a bit harder. To read this tweet about the Italian mime made my day. I spent countless hours combing small towns like Ascoli Piceno, looking for anything that would bring our readers these kinds of experiences. I was with my best friend Len in Ascoli when we found the note on the door of a yoga studio. It looked promising. We called, visited, and knew readers would fall in love with this family.

And that has made it all worth it.

Writer’s Exercise: Finding Your Voice

If you find yourself staring at a screen for hours not knowing where to start, or you feel like you’re expected to turn in a term paper every time you sit down to write, this exercise is for you. I swear 98.1% it’ll help you feel more confident in your own voice.

Work lighthouse

“Hello? I’m looking for my writer’s voice; have you found it? ‘Kay, thanks!”

Finding your voice isn’t easy. I’ve been a professional guidebook author and writer for 15 years, and I feel like I didn’t start nailing it until about maybe three or four years ago. And here’s the best thing — I can be totally lazier in a lot of ways. Yes, yes, it’s more fulfilling and deeply satisfying and I will die feeling like I’ve shared the deepest expression of myself … blah blah blah. But say I have to write about Italy, calm or benefits communications? Where do I even start? Oh, yes. Irreverent and funny but insightful? Let’s start with that and see where I go.

Here’s the exercise … Wait, fuck that. There’s an even easier way to do this. (Yes, this is about creativity, but remember: this is also about pure and unadulterated laziness and the glorious shortcuts we can take to get to where you want to go faster.)

  1. Take five minutes to think of words that describe your writing voice, or the writing voice you’d like to have.
  2. Write down those words.
  3. Spend the next day to 70 years rewriting that list.

Done? Easy peasy.

Or, if you’d like (and only if you’d like), you can get a bit more involved than that. Here’s the full exercise I do with my interns:

  1. Find a group of people you like and trust (in fact, this is kind of the meaning of life, so do it even if you don’t want to do the full exercise).
  2. The first person (we’ll call her the Writer) reads or passes around a writing sample. There is no judgment or critiquing of any kind allowed whatsoever. Critics must sit in the mush pot.
  3. She then writes down (or has already written down) at least 30 words that describe her voice.
  4. The other people (the Listeners) jots down the five or six words on that list that most resonate with their interpretation of the sample’s writing style.
  5. The Writer gathers up and reads each of the Listeners’ lists.
  6. Maybe she finds a pattern in the Listeners lists, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she chooses a few words from the Listeners’ lists, maybe she doesn’t. These lists are purely for feedback, but the Writer gets to choose which five words she’d like to start with.
  7. Each Listener takes his or her turn as the Writer.

From either version, the Writer starts creating her voice. She writes her five, six, seven words or phrases down in her journal. She writes them down on post-it notes and puts them on her laptop, her bedside table, her bathroom wall.

And then, she will tattoo those words into her forearm like Popeye’s anchor, and she will live with them for the rest of her life.

I’m lying.

She will change them, and she should change them. And then she will change them again. And then once they’re all done, and she’s lived with them for 19 months, she will take a trip to Spain or develop a newfound skill as a baker. She will get in touch with her badass side. She will discover a new part of herself, of her personality, of her very being and soul, and she will change them again, because she has changed.

After these last fifteen years as a writer (twelve of which I’ve taught and coached writers), I don’t think all of my words have stayed the same for more than six months at a time. For now, here is the voice I try to aspire to:

Wry. Funny. Irreverent. Insightful. Unexpected.

One can only hope.

You probably noticed every single one of my words is an adjective, and not one has anything to do with travel. I’m partially inspired to write this blog post after finishing my first favorite Lonely Planet assignment ever, the Intro and six lessons for the book Calm. (My second favorite assignment ever, by the way, was for the book Lonely Planet Happy; are you seeing a theme here?) You can read my Happy Intro on the Writing page, as that is the closest I think I’ve come to nailing my voice.

Lists often start out as nouns and develop into adjectives. You might start out with adventure, camping, outdoors. Or luxury, hotels, food. Or even travel, writing, photography. But here’s the important thing: Start your list. Just start. Within six months, all of your words might have rolled over, but at least you’ll have something to roll over.


Phase Two: Coaching and Consulting

It’s been eight months since the fire. Insurance has sent me whatever they’re going to send me. I finally own sunglasses that fit my tiny little munchkin head again. Unexpectedly, I got  my fire-house’s entire security deposit back, plus interest. (Which equals, FYI, the exact price of a plane ticket to Bangkok, Thailand; a welcome coincidence I have chosen to not ignore.)

Eight months ago, I had the chance to accidentally glimpse Nirvana for a split second while I was running out of my house on fire. I went through about one week of almost total presence, two or three months of hell, and another four or five months of stabilizing. A few life lessons have ingrained themselves into my brain:

*Indiana Jones pinball; an 8 on the Alex-happiness scale (AHS)

*Indiana Jones pinball; an 8 on the Alex-happiness scale (AHS)

  1. Life is short and precious and you can lose it, or a part of it, at any second.
  2. There is only so much time I have on this planet, and I want to spend most of that time on activities that directly contribute to at least a 5 or 6* in Alex-happiness (see demonstrative photo).
  3. I know what those activities are now.
  4. More than almost anything in the world, even more than writing or traveling, I like helping people realize their own version of steps 1-3.
  5. I should do more of that.

So here I am. Although I’ve been coaching and consulting for friends and friends of friends for well over a decade now, I’ve finally decided to slowly hang up my shingle. I’m meeting with a business consultant and everything.

Take a look at the new redesign of my blog. I’ve created static pages for my coaching and consulting business, testimonials, my resume, etc. I explain how personal coaching works, what to expect from business consulting, and why you might want to hire me. And I promise to do everything in my power to help those I coach realize their steps 1-3, whatever they might be. And, for a lot less money and hassle than a house fire. It’s a pretty good deal.

Things You Wouldn’t Expect After a House Fire, Pt II

Continued from Things You Wouldn’t Expect After a House Fire, Pt I

3. Find inner peace

You want to drop your monkey mind? So far in my life, here have been my options for reaching this point: A) Meditate for hours and hours a week or B) realize while sick in bed that your house is on fire.

You can read my last post, where I wrote a poem about how I miss those first few days after the fire. Even in a week-long silent meditation retreat two months ago, I still couldn’t find the inner stillness I had that first week. I was running around 12-15 hours a day, I’d lost my home and most of my possessions, and everything stable in my life had just been upended. But everyone made it out of both houses safe, and the source of our trauma wasn’t personal.

When I found out I might lose everything because of asbestos contamination, there wasn’t much physical left to lose. And I sat with what I had: my personal relationships. My experiences. My car and the laptop, purse, iPhone and family jewelry I’d run out with (which, granted, helped bring a hell of a lot of inner peace). My me-ness. And that was more than enough.

4. Change your relationships

The people I love, I love even more now. The people I disliked … I don’t dislike them more, I just don’t care about them as much. I was blown away by people’s reactions, both supportive and dismissive. A few people were shockingly insensitive, even in the first few days. A few people I didn’t know all that well offered more help than I could emotionally manage. I met someone special. My own resilience showed up more than I could have imagined. The relationship that probably changed the most (Aack! Cliche alert!) was probably the one I had with myself.

5. Change yourself


In the days after the fire, Jen, Anne and I fell in love with this video ‘Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions.’ I think Anne watched it a dozen times in one day. We wanted to get a photo of us in our best Charlie’s Angels outfits (a blond, a brunette and Chinese girl with black hair; we were a natural match), preferably wearing knee-high boots and leather jackets, just walking away from our house. Maybe we’d pick up smoking, just so we could flick a cigarette as we strutted away.

While my physical appearance certainly has gone downhill somewhat (“Well, hello, 10 pounds. Nice to meet you. Now please go away.”), my emotional resiliency has strengthened, and I feel like much more of a badass. I don’t have time for your bullshit. I don’t have time for my own bullshit. It’s funny; I’d originally started my blog because I was going to add one totally badass experience to my life each month for twelves months and then write about it. My friend Pierre was going to take me shooting. I was going to try archery, dragon boat racing, champagne bottle sabering. But I felt like I was missing something. Who knew it was a proverbial and literal fire lit under my ass?

Reflections Post-Art Monastery Silent Meditation Retreat

First of all, here’s what I know now: If you lose your favorite meditation pillows in a house fire, you can, indeed and instead, bring a gay cowboy pillow acquired in a white elephant exchange to an Art Monastery’s silent meditation retreat.


Second, I wrote something between an essay and a poem while there. Here ’tis:

I miss it
The god’s honest truth — I miss the days right after the fire
The enlightenment of spontaneous non-attachment
Albeit unexpected spontaneous non-attachment
I miss having every bone and cell and sinew in my body focused on the present
“Nothing is more important than this moment” …

I would have thought to myself if I’d had the time
If I’d only had a pair of shoes
Besides the singed tennis shoes I’d recovered from under a fallen piece of asbestos-covered roof

Days went by
I found peace at the San Francisco fire department
I found it with the forensic investigator from Sacramento with 10 children
I found it when I let go of my meditation pillows
The ones my great-aunt had hand-embroidered 50 years prior

Eventually, life as I knew it came back
I went to work
I remembered what music was
I said good-bye again, to the same great-aunt

One of the funny things about privilege
Is we don’t know just how much we have it unless it gets taken away
What a gift it is to not only be able to sing or play music
But, simply, to listen to it
To have the time to appreciate stillness
To escape death for one more day

I can think of no higher form of joy
No greater expression of privilege than to possess the gift
To be able to create