A Conversation with Christina McDowell

My dear friend and colleague, Amy Friedman, is largely the reason that I found my way to becoming a teacher of writing. Years ago Amy encouraged me to send her an idea for a course, which I did, and before I knew it I was on the slate to teach at UCLA Extension Writers' Program. This opportunity changed my life.

Amy continues to change lives, now as Executive Director of a non-profit organization she founded called POPS, which stands for Pain of the Prison System. POPS supports teenagers who have been impacted as a result of having a loved one in prison. A shocking 1 in 15 children in the United States has a parent who is or has been incarcerated! The first POPS club was launched at Venice High School and they have since expanded to 8 clubs in Los Angeles and reached 5 states. These high-school clubs meet weekly and foster healing and connection through creative expression and emotional support.

One of the things I love most about POPS is that they encourage the students to break their silence and share their stories, moving through and hopefully beyond the shame, stigma and sorrow. Each year the organization publishes the students' work in an anthology -- see 2016's Before There Were Bars and 2017's Cracked Masks.

The vision for POPS is to have a club in every high school in the nation. In order to get there, they need our support! And so I am extending an invitation for all of you to join me on Friday, November 2nd in attending the POPS gala, a Casino Masquerade at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The evening features honoree, Christina McDowell, who authored the memoir After Perfect, about the impact of her father's incarceration, and is the co-producer of the 2018 documentary "Survivor's Guide to Prison."

Scroll down to read more about the POPS gala as well as my conversation with Christina McDowell about her memoir and connection to this incredible organization.

I hope to see you there!


Christina McDowell is the author of the critically acclaimed book, After Perfect: A Daughter's Memoir. She has written for LA Weekly, Marie Claire, Porter Magazine, The Daily Banter, USA Today, The Detroit Free Press and more. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, O (Oprah) Magazine, People Magazine, The Village Voice, among others.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Christina is an advocate for restorative justice and criminal justice reform. She has traveled to state prisons to speak on behalf of families of the incarcerated and victims of crime. She is currently a student at Georgetown University and writing her second book.

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Growing up in an affluent Washington, DC, suburb, Christina and her sisters were surrounded by the elite until their life of luxury was brutally stripped away after the FBI arrested her father on fraud charges. When he took a plea deal as he faced the notorious Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort’s testifying against him, the cars, homes, jewelry, clothes, and friends that defined the family disappeared before their eyes, including the one thing they could never get back: each other.

Christina writes with candid clarity about the dark years that followed and the devastation her father’s crimes wrought upon her family. A rare, insider’s perspective on the collateral damage of a fall from grace, After Perfect is a poignant reflection on the astounding pace at which a life can change and how blind we can be to the ugly truth.

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Karin Gutman: How did you first get connected with POPS? 
 
Christina McDowell: Through a friend I met in a twelve-step program. I have been sober and in recovery for 6 years. She introduced me to author, Amy Friedman, the club’s founder. When I met with Amy I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of POPS, that she understood firsthand what so many children with incarcerated parents feel.
 
KG: How would you describe POPS to someone who is just learning about it for the first time?
 
CM: POPS stands for pain of the prison system. It is the first high school club in America that addresses the pain and isolation this population of students so often feels. Once a week, POPS students meet, write, talk, draw, and express themselves through the arts, healing from the pain of the prison system. It is a reminder that no one has to walk through this experience alone.
 
KG: How is your story the same or different from the kids who participate in POPS clubs around the country, especially given that so many of them come from less privileged backgrounds?
 

CM: When I was eighteen years old the FBI arrested my father on fraud charges then later I discovered he had taken my social security number, laundered money in my name and left me with 100k of credit card debt. I grew up in an extraordinarily white and privileged community in Washington, D.C. I never knew anyone in prison except for the characters I saw on television or in movies. Going to prison for the first time profoundly changed my perception of the world we live in, the way our media and Hollywood portrays prison and those inside prison. It opened my eyes at a young age to the injustices and systemic racism so many in our country are still facing. For example, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate 5 times higher than whites. 

Given my background, the access I had to resources during my father’s incarceration was far greater than many of the children who are suffering today, and it is always important to me that I acknowledge that difference in the context of speaking about this issue. But there are also many ways in which I am exactly the same as a POPS kid. My father was sentenced to 57 months in prison. He missed birthdays, graduations, Christmases, father's days, all of the anniversaries and holidays that make losing a parent to the system so incredibly painful. That feeling of not knowing when I would ever see him again, or when he would come home. Children of the incarcerated have no rights so the government doesn't owe them an explanation of where their parent is being held or taken to. Children just wait for a hand-written letter to come in the mail if they're lucky.  My father was gone for about 4 years. And many people assume that he was in some kind of fancy white collar prison. Most "camps" no longer exist. My father was in a federal minimum security prison for the majority of his time in El Paso, Texas, right on the border of Juarez, Mexico.

When my father came home I really wished that things in my family could have gone back to the way they were, but sadly, his imprisonment ripped our family apart. My parents divorced and my sisters and I each dealt with our feelings and what we were going through very differently. He came home around my 24th birthday. And then he was re-arrested and incarcerated a few years later, and spent another 9 months behind bars for breaking probation. Prison did not rehabilitate him. In my opinion, it just exacerbated problems that were already there. His second arrest was what solidified my need to separate myself from him, which I go into great length about why I made that decision in my memoir. 
 
KG: What kind of support did YOU have when your life turned upside down?
 
CM: This is a tricky question. So many of us that have experienced this kind of pain of the prison system want to keep this pain a secret. So for a long time, I did, and I never sought help. Of course, I had my few friends at the time who knew what was going on and I would share certain things, but I never shared the extent to which I was suffering inside. It was very hard to process as I was experiencing it. The trauma of a parent’s arrest, trial, imprisonment—abandonment, is very layered and complicated. Studies are finally being done at the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University, to explain this kind of complex trauma— the kinds of resources this population needs in order to heal, and is why POPS the Club is so important.
 
KG: How did you know you needed to share this story in a public way? And that you were ready to take that on?
 
CM: It happened unexpectedly. When Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” was released, it enraged me that they would glorify this kind of behavior and life-style while not acknowledging the victims (including the silent victims, which are the children of those committing the crimes). My father was an associate of Jordan Belfort’s (the self-described “Wolf of Wall Street”) and I had an opportunity to stand up for those who were not only affected by greed in this country, but also the hurt of the families of those who committed the crime. I had an opportunity in the moment to go public with the story and I took it. I was just so done with Hollywood’s false narratives in these kinds of films. Thousands of people reached out to me after the article went viral, who share my story or a similar one. It was an incredible gift of connection, and not feeling alone.

KG: How did you navigate writing about and exposing your family? Did your relationship with them, namely your father, change as a result of sharing your story?
 
CM: My mother and two sisters have been incredibly supportive, and I don’t take that for granted. Unfortunately I do not have a relationship with my father today. It’s a question I am asked a lot. It’s possible to forgive someone without being in contact with them; but if that person who hurt you is unwilling to be accountable for their actions, as is the case with my father, then you will continue to re-victimize yourself if you remain in contact with them. This was a hard lesson I had to learn, but an important one. I allowed myself, with the support of a therapist and twelve-step group, to move through that pain and grief.
 
KG: Did you find the writing process empowering and transformative?
 
CM: Absolutely. Writing for me has always been like magic. Sometimes you can’t see the message until it is all out of you, our subconscious is always at work. Writing truly saved my life. Without a pen and my journals, I wouldn’t have gotten through some of my toughest, darkest days. The page always listens. And there is something to be said about our health when we release the thoughts, fears, resentments onto the page. I believe studies have been done to show that writing improves mental and physical health; it certainly does for me.
 
KG: What was your writing process like? Was it easy to find the structure? What was the most challenging part for you? Did you (do you) have a writing ritual? 
 
CM: The back and forth structure of present to past came naturally to me. I write usually how I see and/or experience things since I’m visual. The most challenging aspect was re-living the past and having to remember that it wasn’t my present reality. I remember showing up at a friend’s house in tears because of a scene I had just written and I felt trapped inside of it. It was a very emotional process but I had no choice but to move through it in order to get to the other side. As far as rituals, I think it’s just about letting go of my perfectionism on a daily basis so I can begin writing. Getting seated and going has always been the hardest part because of fear, which, I once heard stands for “false evidence appearing real.”
 
KG: How did you land a publishing deal?
 
CM: I was very lucky in that a few publishers read the article I wrote for the LA Weekly criticizing the “The Wolf of Wall Street,” so I had the opportunity to meet with them and send them my proposal. That said, I was prepared because I had spent years quietly writing and re-writing, so I’m a big believer in that saying, luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
 
KG: I have noticed in readers’ reviews that many relate to your character’s journey, that it’s not a “poor little rich girl” story. That is a remarkable achievement. Is this something you consciously worked at? How did you approach the writing process so that your journey would be relatable?
 
CM: Thank you. I definitely credit my editor, Allison Callahan, at Gallery Books for helping me dig deeper. She challenged me in places where I needed to be more accountable for the mistakes I made in my life. But I was also in a place where I was ready to hear it, to go from being a victim to being a survivor, and that meant owning up to my part in every relationship in my life and then translating that to the page. I think we can all relate as human beings to feeling like we have somehow failed in some way, or perhaps we struggle with identity, or reminding ourselves that our bank accounts aren’t a reflection of our self-worth, or coping with the loss of a parent to alcoholism, or to prison. I always knew this story was about so much more than the loss of money, but about the loss of family, American values, love and accountability. I always say that we are powerless over the cards we are dealt, but it’s up to us and only us what we do with them.
 
KG: Will you be attending the POPS gala on November 2nd? Can you tell us about it?
 
Yes! I am very humbled to be this year’s honoree along with the class of 2019. We are having a Casino Masquerade at the Los Angeles Athletic Club downtown to raise money for our ever-expanding programs. There will be games, jazz, dancing and cocktails. I am so excited to dance the night away celebrating such an important, and life-changing organization. I hope you will join us! All are welcome!
 
KG: Yes, I will be there!

Why should someone who has no connection to the prison system come out and support POPS?

 
Studies now show that nearly half of all U.S. children have been impacted by incarceration. That is an overwhelming number of youth in the wealthiest country in the world to be suffering—youth that are at high risk for homelessness, hunger, and complete isolation. Just think about the long-term ramifications of this. No child in this world should ever feel alone, or should ever be homeless on the street. We can always do more to fight to keep our communities together.
 
KG: From a creative and artistic standpoint, I am curious if you think that this story is the hardest one you’ll ever tell? Has your creativity opened up in the aftermath of getting this origin story out?
 
CM: Oh absolutely. I do think in many ways it was the hardest story I will ever tell. Initially, of course, because I had never written a book before and I was learning as I went. It took years to form the story, a lot of trial and error, failing and starting over. And also just because of how emotionally painful it was to re-live each experience on the page. I certainly wouldn’t be writing fiction today without having told this story first. I always used to tell my friends and family while I was writing it that I just have to get it out so that what’s left inside of me can find its place to live.

I'm currently writing my first novel, which has been an entirely different experience. Of course, it is heavily influenced by my childhood. It takes place in Washington, D.C. and is about the murder of a wealthy family.  It's an exploration of classism in America, old money versus new money, the disintegration of values—if they were ever really there to begin with—power and white fragility. Clearly I'm drawn to comedy! But in all seriousness, I am having way more fun writing this one than the last.

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You are cordially invited to

POPS Casino Masquerade

Friday, November 2nd

8:00 pm - 1:00 am


Los Angeles Athletic Club
431 W. 7th Street

Your presence is requested for a night of cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, live music, and casino games benefitting POPS the Club.

The 5th POPS annual gala promises to be a chic night out. Treat yourself to a night of old-fashioned Hollywood glamour and mingle with its brilliant honoree, Christina McDowell, author of the memoir After Perfect, and co-producer of the acclaimed documentary, "Survivors Guide to Prison.”

Glam it up, put on a mask, and party for a cause!

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The gala benefits POPS, which stands for Pain of the Prison System. POPS supports the long-overlooked community of teenagers who have been impacted by our prison system as a result of having a loved one in prison. 

1 in 15 children in the United States has a parent who is are has been incarcerated. These young people have been traumatized by stigma and shame. Most people are unaware of this fact because these youth have long been silent.

POPS is working to amplify their voices, through weekly work in the high school clubs and through published book collections of their writings and artwork.



Learn more about POPS the Club

To learn more about Christina McDowell, visit her website

See all author interviews

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A Conversation with Steffanie Sampson

I am very excited to share with you an upcoming book release. Steffanie Sampson, a longtime member of the Unlocking Your Story workshop, has co-authored her husband Gary Busey's self-help memoir, Buseyisms. In the interview below, we chat about how the book came to be and her first experience through the traditional publishing process at Macmillan. I will be attending the LA book launch next Friday, September 7th and would love to see you there!


Steffanie Sampson is the co-author of the self-help memoir,Buseyisms, Gary Busey’s Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (St. Martin's Press, September 2018). She is also an actress, stand-up comedian, hypnotherapist, and co-founder of the Busey Foundation For Children’s Kawasaki Disease. She recently won the So You Think You Can Roast competition held at the world famous Friar’s Club in New York City.

Who am I, a genius, a crazy madman, to give advice? This is not advice. I am sharing the life lessons I learned while surviving the ups and downs of almost 50 years in Hollywood, a near fatal motorcycle accident, a drug overdose, two divorces, bankruptcy and cancer in the middle of my face. I may turn concepts you usually believe in upside down with my bizarre stories, but that comes with the dinner.

These are my life lessons, my B.I.B.L.E.—Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
— Gary Busey
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Karin Gutman: Oh my, it is almost here! How do you feel about your upcoming book release? 
 
Steffanie Sampson: It is surreal. I remember when Gary and I met with Macmillan for the first time my editor said, ‘If we do this book, it will most probably be released in two years.’ I thought to myself, TWO YEARS?! Why so long? ... That day seems like yesterday.
 
KG: Can you share about the book and how it came to be?
 
SS: For years, Gary has been constructing Buseyisms. Those are unique word-phrases he makes to create a deeper, more dimensional meaning for words using the letters that spell them.

For example, FART (a fan favorite): Feeling A Rectal Transmission.

Another popular one (and one of his longest) is for the word RELATIONSHIP: Really Exciting Love Affair Turns Into Overwhelming Nightmare Sobriety Hangs In Peril.

For some time, Gary and I wanted to release a book of his Buseyisms, but we weren’t sure how to formulate it. At first we thought of a coffee table book with just illustrations, but no one seemed interested in publishing that. I brought the idea to you, my amazing writing coach Karin Gutman, and together we brainstormed and finally figured out the perfect hook: to tell the stories of Gary’s colorful life through his Buseyisms, sharing the life lessons he has learned along the way.

Once we figured out the format, everything happened to fall into place as if it was divinely guided. One morning we were in the green room at Good Day New York promoting a play that Gary was in, and we ran into an acquaintance of ours, Hayes Grier, who was also doing Good Day New York to promote a new book he wrote. When he introduced us to his publicist, I told her that we were writing a book and asked whom I could contact at Macmillan. I sent an email and got a response within a day asking for a proposal. Since it was just an idea formulating in my mind, I spent the next few days writing a proposal, and consulting with you again, which helped me immensely. After I sent the material to Macmillan, we had a meeting with them, and they offered us a book deal. At the meeting, I told our future editor we were open to all possibilities regarding a ghostwriter, but he wanted me to write it. And now two years later, our book is in the physical form.
 
KG: As the ghostwriter of your husband’s story, what was your process in getting the story out on the page?
 
SS: I really wanted the book to be very readable and fun. I wanted each chapter to be a complete story that could stand alone and be read at any time, similar to the book, Chicken Soup For The Soul. I put myself in the place of the reader and dissected Gary’s life to help me select 50 of his most interesting stories. Then I asked Gary to talk about each story in detail while I recorded him. After a lot of editing, because Gary likes to talk, I made each story roughly 4-5 pages long. We were also required to include 35-50 pictures in the book, so while I was writing the stories, I was also working with various photographers and studios licensing pictures that were cohesive to each story.
 
KG: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
 
SS: The most challenging aspect of writing the book was getting Gary to go deep. There were some things in his life that he didn’t like to talk about, and I really had to explain to him the value of getting everything out on the page. Gary tends to have a real positive outlook and doesn’t like to wallow in the past. I explained that telling stories about what happened in his life was not wallowing in the past and could be very inspirational for people. I mean, Gary survived physical abuse by his father, substance abuse, a near fatal motorcycle accident, cancer in the middle of his face, a drug overdose, bankruptcy, and so much more… there’s a lot that people can relate to. It took me a while to get him on board, but once he understood that telling his stories could help other people, then the writing really flowed.
 
KG: What is the most rewarding aspect?
 
SS: It’s hard to choose the most rewarding aspect. I think having a finished product in hardcover and people getting to know the real Gary - and not the Gary that the media has portrayed - is the most rewarding thing for me. In the ten years I’ve been with Gary, it's been frustrating to see people assume he’s a certain way that he isn’t. Most people assume he’s a crazy nut-bag, but really he’s a very deep, spiritual person. I’m very excited for people to learn the truth about Gary.
 
KG: How the heck did you finish by your deadline, as a mother of a young child to boot!? What was your writing process like?
 
SS: I really have no idea how I did it. It’s almost as if the book wrote itself and I was just a channel. During the ten months that I wrote the book, I was pulled in so many different directions by Gary, our son Luke, and everyday life, but I kept my focus strong. I knew I had a deadline and I wrote every minute I could to make the deadline. I wrote and shared many of the early chapter drafts in your Unlocking Your Story workshop. I would take Luke to school, then lock myself in a room all day long until it was time to pick Luke up from school. I divided up the ten months by chapter and made sure I kept on schedule.
 
KG: I remember speaking to you early on about all the UNKNOWNS working with a publisher and editor. Can you describe the process and share some details, now that you’re on the other side?
 
SS: After we signed the book deal, I spoke to our editor about his vision, then I told him mine, and then strangely enough, I was left alone pretty much until the deadline. At one point about four months into it, my editor wanted to see some chapters to make sure I was on the right path. I sent him what I had completed, and surprisingly he sent me a simple note saying he liked what he saw and that he didn’t need to see anymore until the book was due. Once I turned the book in, he read it, wrote minimal notes, cut two chapters (I ended up writing 52 chapters), and that was that.
 
KG: I know you considered having an agent represent the book. Why did you choose NOT to have an agent and do you think that served you?
 
I considered having an agent in the beginning because I wanted to make sure we had a good deal. After negotiating with Macmillan, and speaking to some people in the industry, I realized that Macmillan’s deal wasn’t going to change whether I had an agent or not. They were pretty definite. I’d already done the bulk of the work getting the deal, and at that point having an agent wasn’t going to be beneficial at all, so I opted out. My experience with Macmillan has been positive thus far, and everything we’ve asked for we’ve gotten, so I think I made the right decision.
 
KG: What kind of support are you getting from the publisher on the promotion of it? Are they relying on Gary’s celebrity and personal publicist to generate promotional opportunities?
 
SS: At the moment Gary does not have a personal publicist, so we are completely relying on publicity provided by Macmillan. It may be too early to comment on publicity, but it seems like they are presenting us with some good opportunities.
 
KG: As the ghostwriter, what is your role now that the book is out? Will you continue to be behind the scenes?
 
SS: I’d like to say that it was very important for me to have my name on the book as a co-author. I was really instrumental getting the book deal, and putting it together with Gary, so I wanted to be recognized. That said, I really don’t know what my role will be. I will make myself available to the publishers, and to Gary, if they need me for anything. 
 
KG: Does this book make you want to write your own story one day?
 
SS: I think someday I will definitely write my own book. It doesn’t feel like it will be any time in the near future. I would be open to ghostwriting another book if the price is right and the subject is pleasing to me.
 
KG: What does Gary think of the book? Is he happy with it?
 
SS: Gary is thrilled with how the book turned out, thank God!
 

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Meet Gary Busey + Steffanie Sampson

~ Upcoming Readings & Signings ~


Tuesday, Sept. 4th @ 6 PM EST
Bookends
East Ridgewood Avenue Center, 211 E Ridgewood Ave, Ridgewood, NJ 07450

Wednesday, Sept. 5th  @ 7 PM
The Book Revue
313 New York Ave, Huntington, NY 11743

Thursday, Sept. 6th@ 6 PM - 8 PM EST
FRIARS CLUB BOOK WARMING
with James “Murr” Murray from Impractical Jokers

3205, 57 E 55th St, 2nd Floor, NYC 10022

Friday, Sept. 7th  @ 7 PM PST  
Barnes & Noble @ The Grove
189 The Grove Drive Suite K30
Los Angeles 90036
Event link

 

Buy Buseyisms on Amazon

See all author interviews

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The Healing Power of Writing Your Story

When a woman reduces the emphasis on the outer heroic quest for self-definition, she is free to explore her images and her voice.
— Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey

What does it mean to be the heroine of your life, and how can the practice of writing lead you there?
 
My journey began journaling as early as I could write. I still have my first “Snoopy” diary with a broken lock and missing key! It was the way I processed the world around me and made my inner experience real.
 
This early connection to the page has led to a lifelong practice, and eventually to guiding others in discovering and writing their life-based stories, often working with deeply personal material. In my early workshops, people would often blurt out, “This is better than therapy!” which was unsettling since I’m not a therapist. It prompted me to reach out to colleagues for advice, who in turn introduced me to the vast array of scientific research that links writing to an increased sense of well-being. I quickly recognized the healing benefits that had sprung from my own intuitive practice. This excited me, and so my studies deepened.

Over the years, I have come to understand that when we write about our lives, we are taking the fragments—those unconnected, seemingly random memories—and out of them creating coherent narratives. You might start with the plot of your life, which is simply the sequence of events—this happened, then this happened, and so on. This is the raw material. The story is revealed when you attach meaning to those events and discover your emotional truth and journey through them. You show how you’ve moved through the rocky terrain and emerged on the other side, transformed. In this way, we begin to see that the DARKNESS is connected to the LIGHT, that they are part of the same story; and in that, there is a healing, an integration, and a wholeness of one’s Self that emerges.
 
This process is illuminating and deeply empowering, as we are free to interpret what we have experienced and why it matters.
 
But this work is not for the feint of heart. It takes courage. In diving into our stories—like diving into the wreck as Adrienne Rich evocatively describes in her eponymous poem—we take a deep plunge, an immersion. You are required to re-imagine and examine events of the past, and this at times can be painful. So there is a need for self-care, which can take many forms—perhaps building in time for a walk, a warm bubble bath, or connecting with a loved one. You might even thrust your face into an open freezer as a visceral trigger to shock the body back into the present moment.
 
If you’re new to this kind of writing, I suggest you begin by making a list of moments or events from your life—those images that are embedded in your memory, the ones that stick with you and perhaps haunt you. Lists offer an easy ‘way in’. They don’t require full sentences or pretty language. Simple bullet points, like a grocery list. And then, depending on the day and your inner readiness, you tackle one or two, allowing yourself to explore it on the page. Start with 10 minutes a day. The idea is to make it accessible and doable—less daunting, less scary. This ‘writing ritual’ looks different for everyone. I know one friend who has a beautiful desk and spacious place to write, but over time realized that her best writing came from sitting in the car while her son was in karate class. She wrote an entire book that way! There is nothing perfect-looking about this practice. It is about getting to know and trust your own creative process. As you go about ‘getting it out on the page’ you are mapping the territory—letting your subconscious root around and make connections, following the train of thought, and hopefully even surprising yourself.
 
Of course those pesky voices may start their chatter. Who do you think you are? You can't write!
 
To which I say: write anyway. I am giving you permission to write your story. To put a stake in the ground and say, “This is my experience.” It is your truth. It is valid.
 
And it will change your life, for the better.
 

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Captain-Of-Your-Life-Ebook

This piece is included in the eBook Captain of your own life, a collection of essays written by heart-centered female entrepreneurs who are using different modalities—such as mindfulness, art journaling, yoga and aromatherapy—to empower others towards personal freedom.

Download the complete eBook

 
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