Sicario (2015)

“Sicario” is perhaps the best film about the drug war I’ve ever seen. On one hand it resembles a distaff “Apocalypse Now” as cop Emily Blunt journeys into the heart of darkness, trying desperately to hold onto her humanity as she spirals closer and closer to a moral black hole. On another, it is dropping “No Country For Old Men”s Anton Chigurh (the term “Sicario” is not only a Hebrew resistance fighter, but a Mexican term for “hitman”. And the man in question is played, to perfection, by Benicio Del Toro) into “Traffic”. The result is shattering. See it.  An “A+”

Holy #$%% this movie is intense.

Does “Lifewriting” apply to poetry and non-fiction?

Steven Barnes and wife Tananarive Due on beach.

The question often comes up: “I write poetry/non-fiction…does the Lifewriting approach work for me?”

Absolutely.  Remember that the original intent of the system was to apply the structures of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to life itself. Only after a decade did I specifically “tune” it for writers.

So with fiction, it applies in three levels:

  1. Structuring the story (plotting)
  2. Structuring/executing the work (project management)
  3. Gaining perspective on your life itself (goals and resource management, stress control)
  1. For instance, if you KNOW that your character will enter the Dark Night of the Soul at some point (probably in the last 20% of the story).  It is a “pinch point” where all their abilities have been exhausted, and they either expand or die.  Be sure that all of your actions in your novel reinforce this moment.
  2. You KNOW that at some point in the project, it will feel as if the entire thing is totally turning to puree of bat guano.  Might happen during the writing, might happen during the marketing/sales phase.  But it happens, and you have to ask yourself, prior to that point, what you will do to help yourself through it.
  3. You KNOW that you have experienced this “dark night” in every other arena of your life.   Looking back over your life and asking “how many times have I reached despair prior to learning a skill/getting a date/getting a job/surviving a loss?”  Really look at this, until you see the pattern. How did you get through it?  What was your particular “recipe” for misery? (what did you say to yourself, what did you focus on, how did you move your body?)  How did you get back out of it? (time passage, friends interceding, attention caught by another task, going to the gym, etc.)  And the most important question: how will you get out of it next time?  How can you help your friends/children/mate/co-workers/employees through their OWN “Dark Nights” more rapidly, help THEM gain perspective?

Once you connect the inner and outer worlds, the writer and the writing, life lived as a work of creation, the “Lifewriting” approach comes into its own.

With poetry: there is the pattern of creating the work itself, of course.  If the poem is narrative, the same rules apply. If impressionistic, you might ask whose emotions or perspective you are expressing, and where they are in their life at this moment.  

With non-fiction, there is the pattern of creating the work (always).  But narrative is critically important here as well, if you wish the reader to have an emotional response to the raw facts.  Even math textbooks can feature stories about people who learned or applied or created the skills, or “word problems” that help to take abstract concepts concrete.

The human heart seeks to make story out of chaos.  There are endless examples of how this works…hope that this has been useful!

Write with passion!


Talk about “first draft syndrome”…we made a TON of mistakes…and still had a great time!

Dear {!firstname_fix}:

Our “Three Massive Mistakes New Writers Make…” webinar could have been called “Three Massive Mistakes New Webinar Leaders Make…” We started late, our audio fluxed, we didn’t have a hard-wired connection to our computer, and we couldn’t use the studio location we’d planned on and ended up using my joyfully junky office…but it was still a hit!  We CRAMMED information into our hour-long presentation, and then answered as many questions as we could.
But then we didn’t have the replay button ready, and even the opportunity to enroll in the LIFEWRITING TEN WEEK course was hidden beneath pages of text.  Sigh.   So sorry.  Luckily, our happy audience forgave us and gave serious “thumbs-up” saying things like “enlightening” “life-changing” “inspiring” and my personal favorite: “you guys are awesome,  thank you so much!”
Anyway, if you missed it, or got bogged down in the text, here is a much simpler page to just sit back and enjoy the video.    We’ve also pushed the sale back 24 hours so that you have a full 72 hour window to get the special rate.
Steve and Tananarive

Is your creative spark dying?

Was there a time in your life you wanted to be a writer? Artist?  Composer?   Did you let that dream die?  Well, today at 6pm pst my wife Tananarive and I are going to do a free Webinar on the “Three Massive Mistakes” made by new writers.

But you know something? I realized that this isn’t just for people who want to write novels or films.  It is also for poets, painters, singers, dancers. Anyone who wants to refine and improve their artistic skills, or find a way to market them so that they can be full-time, or at least supplement their income.

And that means that if you are just a little creative…and I know you are…you’ll be able to hear what we’re saying about WRITING with an open heart that will allow you to apply these principles to anything.  Anything that involves excellence, self-expression, commercial success or artistic accomplishment.

If you ever had those dreams, and wish to reclaim them…

If you already have an artistic career, and want to take it to the next level…

If you know or love an artist and want to be a better ally to her…

Then join us tonight.  Listen, watch, learn, and ask any questions you want!



How do we know our meditations have become “real”?

I recently posted that meditation is useless if you do not take that peace into the world.  What does that mean, and what is the way to accomplish this?

Perhaps a negative example is the best way to explain: you have a meditator, or someone who does beautiful peaceful Tai Chi, or lovely strong deep yoga.  But someone cuts them off on the freeway and they scream curses.  Their child acts out, and they fly into a rage.  They get in a Facebook argument and gush abuse and anger.  Their boss criticizes them, and they quake as if faced by a starving tiger.

Their meditation is still floating on the surface.    Unless you can take that same peace and not react with fear and anger when presented by life stress, they are not yet penetrating the ego shell and connecting with something deeper than their self-image.

  1. Cut off on the freeway.  What does that mean?  That you will be late?  That the other driver disrespected you?  That the other driver put you at risk by cutting lanes?   IDENTIFY THE FEAR.   Did reacting with anger make any of this better?  Have you increased your safety?   Is this action a symbol for other stresses and frustrations in your life, and are you venting from the safety of your rolling fortress?
  2. Your child is acting out.  Who is the adult here?   Are you incensed that your authority has been threatened?   Afraid that you cannot control your child and therefore she is at greater risk?  Is this a direct concern, or symbolic of disrespect in other arenas of your life?  What are you afraid of?
  3. You are having a political argument on Facebook.  How often do highly politicized people change their minds about something in a Facebook argument?  Why are you so invested?  What difference does it make?   How can you rail against the “gridlock” in Washington, when your precise behavior, writ large, is the same kind of ego-dance?   If you do not exemplify the kind of rational, calm discourse that leads to compromise or clarity, on what basis can you criticize our leaders?  If you are so invested in a zero-value conversation–one which ultimately impacts NOTHING, what in the world would you be like if something would actually be on the line?   “Be the change you wish to see.”
  4. If your boss is angry at you, why is she angry?  What is she afraid of?  That your perceived incompetence will cost her her own job?   Is she struggling at home and taking it out on you?  If you lose your job, do you really have no confidence that you will be able to find another?  If so, shouldn’t you invest your energy and time in developing that confidence and self-knowledge?   If you don’t, you will be in fear every single day of your life.   If there is 20% unemployment, why are you so certain that 80% of the population is better than you at marketing themselves?   If you were totally certain you could survive if you lost your job, would you still be afraid?  Upset?   

When you meditate, most of us will deal with mental chatter and “garbage” for the first fifteen minutes, until you reach a “flow.”  Imagine this like shrinking your ego until, like the submarine in “Fantastic Voyage” you can float through the gaps between the obstacles and fears, navigating in the clear spaces.   If there isn’t enough space, if you can’t stop bumping into the disappointments and emotional tangles, you simply haven’t shrunk your ego enough.   You are attached to a particular picture of life, of yourself.  

We are upset when our reality doesn’t match our picture of the way things “ought to be.”

We believe the world revolves around us.  Or conversely, that the world is out to get us.  The reality is between the two: the world is just what it is, and cares about us about as much as you care about an individual cell in your body.

That driver who cut us off on the freeway?  You could have said: “wow.  He must be in a terrible hurry to drive so poorly.  I hope he gets home safe.”

That raging child?  You could say: “his hormones are chaos.  He is filled with fear about an awkward body, a maze of conflicting new rules, confusion about the world and all its violence and sexuality.   I must be calm, so that he can FEEL that calm is possible.”

That Facebook thread?  You could believe that you are a microcosm of our nation, our world.  If you can see the humanity in the other side, see that their anger is fear, you can either communicate better, or at the very least not take it personally.  At all. Hell, they don’t know you. They’re screaming at photons.  How much fear does it take to shut down that much forebrain?  

Your boss is a human being. If YOU were the boss, your employees would say much the same things about you that employees everywhere think about bosses.  And you would start thinking much the same thing about them that bosses typically think. And if you are stuck with a genuinely monstrous boss?  People change jobs every day. Why precisely do you have less confidence in yourself than they have?  What decisions could you make differently that would lead, in a year, to you having more flexibility in options?

In other words: what can YOU do to take responsibility for your life, your actions, your emotions, that lead to more and better choices?   I promise you that if you have the resources and capacity to be reading these words, someone somewhere has had fewer resources than you, and done better.

But you might have to give up your IMAGE of yourself, your MAP of the way you wanted life to be.  And get down to the basics of what you are programmed to seek in life: survival, sex, shelter, love, honest expression and understanding.   Owning your life.  The APPEARANCE of those things is quite secondary.  In most cases, it is like being attached to a red Subaru, and ignoring the fact that someone is offering you a green Toyota…and then claiming you have no transportation.

We make choices, based upon our values, which are based on our beliefs, which are anchored in our emotions, which originate in our sense of “what is true?” and “who am I?”

Meditation seeks to calm us, to dive deeper than the easy answers, down below the chatter, to the original manufacturer specifications: survival, sex, shelter, love.   Not the trivial socially-programmed ego-driven manifestations of these things, but down to where we can examine our choices and decide for ourselves: is this true?  Who am I?

And we know that we have accessed truth not when we find peace sitting cross-legged in a cave, but when we are cut off on the freeway…when our children challenge us…when we are in arguments with strangers…and when our employment is threatened…and our breathing does not change. Nor our posture.   Nor our inner calm. And we can ask: “what do they fear?” rather than “I am attacked!”

If you can maintain calm confidence, compassion, and adult awareness at those times, THEN you are starting to touch something real. To “wake up.”   That is where the rubber meets the road.

Otherwise, it’s like playing video games and thinking that makes you a combat vet, or martial arts master, or race-car driver.   

Start with the surface “games”, yes…but take it into the world.  That is the real test.   



Why not throw a party?

The Ericksonian “Parts Party” technique gives labels to the different “parts” of your personality, then lets them express themselves and have conversations with each other. This is hugely valuable when you have internal conflicts.  A basic one is between the “Artist” and “Salesman” parts.

The “Artist” tends to say: “this is what I want to create. Love it!”  The “Salesman” tends to say: “What do you want to buy?  I’ll provide it!”  The “Manager” or “Producer” personality has to find a way to get these two parts to talk to each other and compromise.  If you have a negative association with any of these three, you are probably struggling.

Perhaps they could use a talk with each other…you don’t need to study meditation or hypnosis to do this (although they help.)   The “hypnogogic state”, the place just between sleep and waking, experienced first thing in the morning, and the last thing at night, is a perfect “waking dream” state where you can begin to cultivate the ability to peer into your mind in a different way.  By personifying the “parts” of your personality as if they are attending a cocktail party, you engage your imagination, and ask logic to step aside a bit.  ANY part of your personality can be “named” and you might very well be shocked at what they have to say to you.


Four gifts for you

Four gifts for you

We’re doing a lot of interesting things over here, and one of them is asking: what do people want? What can we offer to help you in your concerns, goals, needs?   Many readers appreciate our thoughts about the artistic life, specifically that of the writer.   So many people want to write either fiction or non-fiction that it is sometimes kinda scary.   So we’re going to dive a little deeper into that, and have a couple of gifts for you.

  1. A free mini-course on the Hero’s Journey connected to life and art.  You can sign up for it at
  2. A free webinar on “The Four Huge Mistakes Made by New Writers.”  You can sign up for THAT at:

But even before you sign up, I can tell you one of the mistakes New Writers make: they let fear stop them.  Wow. Such a huge one!  So the “free course” includes a couple of fear-smashing techniques which, if you’ve never used or heard of, will flat blow your mind

Ask yourself: what would you attempt, or achieve, if irrational fear did not inhibit you?  If the “voices in your head” did not stop you from reaching for your dreams?

What would your life look like if you had internal permission to GO FOR IT?

Just gaining clarity on that single thing can change your life, because it can motivate you to find the resources needed to push onward, or find the door through, the ladder over, or the tunnel under your obstructions.

It’s your life.   Claim it!

Write with passion…



Hi!  I’ve been so looking forward to this week.   The Inaugural Firedance Tai Chi workshop will be this Saturday October 3, 10am, at the LASFS clubhouse 6012 Tyrone Ave, Van Nuys, CA 91401, from 10 to 3.

I’ve taught Tai Chi to thousands of students for almost thirty years, but NEVER a workshop like this, where I’ll have more time for individualized attention, going deeper, and helping every student create a “morning ritual” of movement, thought, and emotion that will power your day in just fifteen minutes.  An absolutely amazing technique, and I’m dying to share it.

We still have eight spots for the workshop, and if you are interested, please go to:


Registration will open at 9:30.   Please be on time! Some important considerations:

1) Be well rested.

2) Wear loose clothing

3) Bring water, a yoga/exercise mat, and a light lunch.

4) Be responsible for your wellness.    NEVER go above a “3” on a scale of 1-10 in terms of pain.   RESPECT YOUR BODY.

5) Bring a notebook.  Recording is recommended.  Cell phone videos rule!

6) Bring a sense of PLAY.  We learn faster when we are having fun!

7) This is the very first time this material is being presented in this way. Please forgive any rough edges!

8) I will send this out again via email, so keep your eyes peeled!

9) Please empty your cup.  Some of you will be coming with previous martial or Tai Chi experience.  I honor that.   We’re going to approach this subject from a rather unique body/mind perspective, and I need you to be open to a different way of examining the processes of flow and structure.

10) Come with an intent.  Something you need/want to work on, that you are prepared to share with the group. Let us support you.

11) YOU are the workshop. You will only get out of it what you put into it: your honest emotions, intent, and movement.

12) Get ready to play!

Does the Lifewriting Ten-Week serve an advanced student?

Steven Barnes and wife Tananarive Due on beach.

I just got a terrific note from an advanced writer who is going through the LIFEWRITING TEN WEEK program.  Basically, she has written multiple stories, published a well-received novel, and wanted to use our course to facilitate a current project.  As the “10-Week” is structured around short story writing as the basic building block, she wanted to know how to apply the ideas to her work, and wondered if the course was right for her at her level of development, and with her specific intents and needs.

First of all–there is nothing that is more of an honor than for a student to come to our work with serious accomplishment already in place. It is the difference between a white belt who needs basic concepts and a black belt who needs to “clean up” their biomechanics and align motion with mind and mind with spirit.  Very different…and yet the same, because the reality is that there are no “advance” techniques or secrets. There is only deeper and deeper grasp of basics.

Here is my answer to the writer we will call “Karen.”


Greetings, Karen!

Some thoughts:
1) You could, of course, apply the ideas in the Lifewriting 10 Week program to a specific project you are working on.  Everyone makes adjustments to any course they take–no two people do anything precisely the same way.
2) How to do that?  Go to the root of what we’re doing: aligning your personal philosophy with a more specific strategic approach, and even more specific tactics.  Tactics are the surface (and most of what is taught in writing courses, or in all honesty, most courses of any kind).  “Do A, then B, then C.”  Strategy is “if you do A, THIS is what will happen.  And it fits into our overall plan in THAT way.”  Philosophy would be: “what is the meaning of life?  What is a human being?”  Your strategy has to accomplish something in alignment with your sense of meaning. Tactics will be specific steps you make to implement your strategy.   Right?
So the Lifewriting system says: what are human beings?  What is the world?  Who are YOU?  Everything you write flows from this idea, supporting it, exploring it, communicating what you find in those explorations.  The connection then, is between who YOU are, and the things that concern you, and who your CHARACTER is, and what concerns them, and who your AUDIENCE is, and what drives them.
There is an overlap, a way that you can express yourself, tell a great story, and serve or communicate to your reader to create an emotional change.   Written this way, “discipline” is a non-issue: you don’t have to discipline yourself to eat cake!
Tactics are plentiful in the course: time management, emotional control, use of imagery and so forth.    But we believe that within you, within everyone with an artistic/creative impulse, is not only a “perfect” story (or dance,or painting, or song) but also a “perfect” artistic life, one in alignment with your deepest dreams and hopes and needs and intents.
And this is a creative flow that runs through you like a river, falls from above like a storm.  “Tactics” or techniques then are what other people see from the outside (or what you might have to separate out in order to instruct a student).  But in a traditional apprenticeship relationship, the student of the sword-maker sleeping in the shop, what they want are techniques, but what they really get (and NEED) is the things that cannot be expressed in words.   They take actions and live the life until they absorb, through some magic, the core of mastery that the master cannot put into words. The words keep the apprentice’s conscious mind busy while the soul absorbs and learns to vibrate in tune.
All of that is to express that you are experienced enough to make an adaptation.  Instead of short stories, look at each chapter of your work as its own mini-story, a fractal mini-version of the overall pattern.  (Chris Soth’s “Mini-Movie” method comes to mind).   After all, the entire story is one giant Action-Reaction unit: the world does X, the character responds with Y.  But every conversation between two people is the same, with every dialogue couplet: I say X, you respond Y, and we either progress or fall into the void as a consequence.
So Action-Reaction, whether on the smallest or largest level, speaks to “what are human beings?” and “what is true about the world?”    Look at your chapters and ask what the meaning of the events is, as the patterns repeat from the smallest to the largest level.   What is true about these events? These people?   How does this express your own sense of what is right or true?
Because…when you are working from your heart as well as your head, and driving it with your energy, the work just…flows. And is “right” and needs minimal re-writing, because you were speaking the truth.
In other words, when your work flows from the deepest wells, you create your own strategies and tactics and techniques as you go.  YOU are in the flow. Others, looking from outside, say “ah!  She used THIS or THAT technique!  What an expert.”  But you?  You were just running madly, blindly through the fields of your passion, gushing out the work the way a horse given her head runs madly for the sheer joy of feeling her body working the way it was intended.  THIS is art, and craft, and passion, and technique, all working together in the expression of your soul.
THAT is Lifewriting.   Techniques?  Sure.  Got a million of ’em.  Could generate a dozen an hour every day for the rest of my life without blinking or breathing hard. Its fun. But I’d rather teach your mind and heart and body to work together, so that you are just flowing as naturally as a baby plays.
Does that make sense?  I hope so.  If it does, then watch the movies, come to your own conclusions about how the structure aligns with the “Hero’s Journey” and then ask yourself how that applies to the chapter on your computer screen. The lives of your characters. And when you do that, they will pull you into the story, THEY will write for you.  And it will be the best, most effortless writing of your life.
It will be the story you, and only you, were born to write.