Suzanne Morrison, YOGA BITCH

Suzanne Morrison, YOGA BITCH

Zibby Owens: Today, I FaceTimed with Suzanne Morrison who’s the author of Yoga Bitch, which was an IndieBound best seller, a Crosscut best Northwest book of 2011, and has been translated into seven languages. Yoga Bitch had its start as a long-running one-woman show of the same title which played in New York, London, and across the United States. A recipient of four culture and artist trust grants, her fiction and essays have appeared in American Short Fiction, Popshot UK, Salt Hill, Washington Square, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She teaches memoir and fiction at Seattle’s Hugo House and at Veteran centers through the Red Badge program.

Welcome, Suzanne. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Suzanne Morrison: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Can you please tell listeners what Yoga Bitch is about?

Suzanne: When I was in my mid-twenties shortly after graduating from college, I started doing yoga. I just popped into this yoga studio in Seattle on a whim. There was this really extraordinary woman running the class. She was beautiful. She was smart. She had worked everything out in her life through yoga. This is what I came to learn the more time I spent in her yoga studio. She ran the studio with her partner Lou. They were these spectacular human beings. This was old school Seattle yoga, so on the hippier end of the spectrum, not like the posh, more corporate power yoga styles that are prevalent today. This is a bit more woo-woo. They taught these yoga teacher trainings that were two and half months in Bali every year. On a total whim, I decided to go. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a yoga teacher or not. I just knew I wanted to spend more time in the presence of this woman. Her name was Indra. That’s what I call her in the book. I just wanted to learn everything she knew. I felt like my life was a total mess at twenty-five. I didn’t really know right where I was going. I was about to move to New York when September 11th had just happened. I was like, is that crazy? I was in this relationship with a guy I really loved, but I wasn’t sure that it was going to really go anywhere. Here was this woman who had figured everything out through yoga. I was like, maybe that will work for me too. That’s what I did. The experience resulted in this book.

Zibby: Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to find something you love to do like yoga and then think that that makes you have everything in life figured out?

Suzanne: Right? I know. I think that’s the allure of a lot of spiritual practices. That’s what I mean when I say that this yoga practice was more old school. It was very much a spiritual practice. It was physical. We were doing asana as well as meditation and things like that. It was, without question, a spiritual practice. I think that is why people convert to Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any number of religions or spiritual paths. There is this idea that if you can find a way to train yourself to see the world and to see yourself, that you’re going to then have better instincts and you’ll be able to trust yourself more. As a result, you’ll make better decisions and as a result of that, be happier. For some people, that might be true. It wasn’t totally for me.

Zibby: I like how you say up front that you were reading all these spiritual memoirs but then hiding that from everybody as if it was a shameful activity. Yet here you’re writing this book. It’s not the antidote to a spiritual memoir, but an offshoot of a spiritual memoir. Some would say it is one.

Suzanne: It’s not an anti-spiritual memoir. I think it is a spiritual memoir. The term is sometimes unfairly maligned. Perhaps I think that now because I’ve written one. I was super embarrassed to be reading them in my twenties. They were all sorts. They were Buddhist memoirs and Christian memoirs. Pretty much any religious experience, I read about it. Seattle’s this really secular city. This is not a very religious place, especially in the city itself. If you get around to the outskirts, it changes a lot. It’s a really deeply skeptical city, pretty atheist is how I would really think of it. It seemed even cheesier, really corny to be reading these books. Then to find myself writing one a few years later, I was like, wow, I’ve really tipped over to the other side here now.

Zibby: It was so great that you actually went on one of those retreats. I hear about these things all the time. You always wonder, what would that be like if I just picked up my life and tried it? Then that’s what you did for the rest of us.

Suzanne: I’ve always loved to travel. I had never been to that part of the world. I was really deeply naïve about it. I didn’t know what to expect from Indonesia. Bali is so unique within Indonesia. They practice Balinese Hinduism there, whereas Islam is the biggest religion in Indonesia otherwise. I really had no idea where I was going. I didn’t do any research either. I was in this post-college daze. I will say, having talked to people who’ve gone to other types of yoga retreats, I think this one was kind of unique. It wasn’t in the sense that we did a lot of yoga. We mediated. We did pranayama, which is the breathing exercises. We studied yogic history. It was pretty hardcore. We did yoga eight hours a day and did so much meditation. Then as you discover on page thirty of the book or something, a lot of these people were drinking their own urine. Am I allowed to say this on your podcast?

Zibby: Yes, you are definitely allowed to say that. By the way, I mentioned that to my kids. I was like, “You’re never going to believe what’s going on in the book I’m reading right now.” They were like, “What?” Actually, I told them first when you were debating whether or not to do it. Then they kept asking, “Did she do it?”

Suzanne: It’s the question I get from everybody. I’ll never live it down. That was shocking. I was like, wow, these people are so hardcore. I didn’t realize just how hardcore they really were until I understood that they were doing that. There’s this whole spiritual reason for doing it, according to them. I’ve read a bunch of books about it. When I got home from Bali, I bought all these books. I was like, what on earth were they doing? There are all sorts of esoteric theories about why that’s good for you, both physically and spiritually. That’s how tipped over these people were into the woo. They were doing things that were so outside the mainstream and certainly outside of what we think of as yoga now. Yoga is so mainstream these days.

Zibby: You were poking so much fun at your roommate Jessica. Then by the end, you had successfully corrupted her back to the land of cynicism and breaking the rules and all the rest of it.

Suzanne: We had a lot of fun. We were so completely different. I was a smoker. I liked to drink and eat meat. She was very pure by comparison. By the end, we’d both rubbed off on each other in ways that I think were really good. We’ve stayed friends. We’ve stayed in touch. I haven’t talked to her very much lately, but she actually hosted me when I was on book tour. They my event. She’s really a wonderful person. She runs her own yoga studio. She’s gotten involved in activism and things like that. She’s a great person. We were so completely different. We could’ve really hated living together, but we ended up having a lot of fun.

Zibby: You tapped into the whole forming your identity as an offshoot of that “am I dating the right person?” sort of agita that plagues many in their twenties when you’re trying to figure out all the big answers in life. You’re doubting over and over. Sometimes when you were writing this diary within the book, everything was fine. Then the next day, you were doubting it. Then it was fine. I’ve so been there. Everyone has been in that moment. You captured it really well.

Suzanne: Thank you. Being in your twenties is so hard. I’m in my forties now. Every decade has its challenges, but your twenties are so challenging. They’re so hard. It’s so hard not to know how you want to live yet. You don’t really know what your daily rhythms are, even, and how important those things are going to be in terms of who you partner up with, if you do partner up. For me, and I think I put this in the book, when I went to Bali, I was so confused about where I was going in my life. I made a vow to myself. What I had noticed was that when I wrote in my journal, I was lying to myself, like really hardcore. I’d be full of all this doubt about my relationship, but on the page I would be like, “Things are great. I love my boyfriend so much. Things are hard, but hard is good. Challenging is good in a relationship.” I had all these theories that I would use, which I think all young women do, probably a lot of young men as well, where you’re like, “No, it’s good if we don’t get along all the time. He challenges me,” or whatever it is.

I made this vow that I was not going to lie in my journal. It made a huge difference in my life. Just that one decision, to be honest, in this one place, this journal of mine — I knew I wasn’t going to burn it when I got home, but I told myself I could or that I could just leave it in Indonesia in some dumpster or something like that so long as I was really honest. That was the game changer both in terms of learning about myself and my tendencies. Also, I think it’s what made me a writer. I’d always been a writer, but this was the first time I was like, if I’m going to be a writer, I have to actually be willing to face what’s true for me.

Zibby: How long after you got home and you kept the journal did you think to yourself, maybe I should try to publish this?

Suzanne: The book is definitely not my journal. My journal’s a lot more boring. Actually when I got home, I moved to New York a few months later. Originally, I didn’t know there was going to be a book. I thought it might be, but I knew for sure I wanted it to be a one-woman show. My background was in the theater. I was moving to New York to pursue solo performance mostly. I didn’t really want to be a traditional actress and basically just play a bunch of girlfriends and wives and mothers. I wanted to tell my own stories. I wanted to write and produce and perform my own shows. Here all of a sudden, I have this story of this crazy yoga retreat and all of this inner turmoil. That’s what I did in New York. I spent a few years putting the show together and then performing it in New York. Then I moved back to Seattle.

By the time the show was up on its feet, I knew I needed to write it as a book. What I found was that writing for the stage and writing for the page are really, really different in terms of the sorts of things you can do. Because it had all this spiritual stuff in it that I wanted to explore, that really didn’t perform well on stage to get into the complexity and the inner contradictions of a spiritual path or an attempt at faith. It just didn’t work on stage. All of those things got cut from the show. They were, in many ways, the things that were most important to me, and so I started writing it as a book. Then that took me years and years. Originally, I wanted to do a comic novel. It really didn’t work very well, mostly because I was trying to improve the main character so much, me. I was trying to make her way smarter and cooler. She had an amazing rack. I remember body for some reason. She just wasn’t vulnerable enough.

My agent at the time sent it out as a novel to a bunch of publishers. It was roundly rejected. Then one of the editors was like, “This really should be a memoir. It’s obviously a true story. Why doesn’t she just write it as a memoir?” At the time, memoir was having this huge boom in publishing. I was like, absolutely not. I’m definitely not going to do that. I’ve written it as a show. I’ve written it as a novel. How many more ways am I going to write this story? I sat on it for a year. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and I had this epiphany. I was like, I should write the memoir as diary entries from where I have no perspective, so you’re thrust right into the middle of the experience in Bali, and then intersperse that with perspective from today, like eight years later, five years later. I can’t remember what it is now. Once I had that realization that that could work, then the memoir, I won’t say it wrote itself because it definitely didn’t, but then it happened.

Zibby: Awesome. Then what happened? Did you send it to the same publisher who said that? Did you end up with a different one?

Suzanne: We ended up with a different one. It was Random House. I had a really great experience there. I loved my editor and amazing team there. They took really good care of it. In the end, I was really, really happy with how everything worked out.

Zibby: That’s great. Now you’re now doing a new memoir? Is that true? I read that somewhere, but maybe it’s not true.

Suzanne: I actually have a couple books in process right now. I have one that’s all but finished. I just need to tweak some things. It’s basically autobiographical fiction. It’s called Thinking like a Girl. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s sort of an intellectual and sexual coming-of-age story. What I was drawing from was my pretentious youth. I went off to Europe after high school. There was no money for the kind of college I wanted to go to, so I raised my own money and took myself to Europe to do theater and be a writer. It was super pretentious. I really wanted to explore that, the girl who does the thing that boys have historically done, boy artists I mean, taking herself way too seriously and having all sorts of artistic feelings all over the place. This one also deals with young love. I think a lot of young women who aspire to be artists think that they need to have a partner who matches that in some way. Maybe it’s a hugely dramatic love story. That’s what this one was. What I write in the book is that this love story is totally terrible, the worst, but because it’s so dramatic it feels very artistic, and that central lie that I think a lot of young women who are artists have, that your life is supposed to be kind of a mess for you to be an artist, if that makes sense. I’ve got that. Then I have a novel that I’m working on.

Zibby: Tell me about that.

Suzanne: The novel, it’s basically about a theater company. I come from the theater, so I’m always thinking about theater. It’s about these two best friends who form a theater company in the booming nineties in Seattle. It all comes crashing down in the recession in 2008 and 2009. It’s about all these characters in the theater company and what happens after their theater company implodes. It spans basically their entire lifetimes. We start when one of the characters is five and just discovering the theater. Then it’s going to end, actually, in probably 2050, which is sort of crazy to be trying to think about the future like that because it’s not what I’ve ever done. I’ve just been thinking about the ancient art form which is theater and how it changes over time as these people’s lives change. I’m about two-thirds of the way through that one. I’m having a lot of fun with it.

Zibby: That’s great. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Suzanne: Yeah, oh, my gosh. The number one thing is you have to read and read and read. It’s the biggest thing. I meet a lot of aspiring authors who don’t read. Oftentimes, the attitude is that they don’t have time to read. I just don’t know how one writes without reading. I always think of reading as the gasoline in the car. You need the energy that you get from reading in order to write. That’s the biggest one. The more you read, the better your writing will be. The more you’ll write too. It inspires writing. I also think, since we’ve been talking so much about relationships, finding someone who thinks it’s great that you want to write. I’ve known a number of people, mostly women honestly, who have given up on artistic aspirations because they’re with someone who doesn’t support it. That’s really important, maybe overlooked when people talk about what helps you write. It really does help to have a home life that supports it.

Zibby: Do you have that?

Suzanne: Yeah, absolutely. Really, what that means is someone who will leave you alone, I hate to say.

Zibby: I want to marry someone who doesn’t want to spend any time with me.

Suzanne: I know, it sounds so terrible. Someone who you like to spend time with, obviously, but if you’re going to close your door for a couple hours and write, they’re going to respect that. They’re not going to feel like you’re abandoning them. There’s just no way to write without some solitude. You need it. That’s probably the other thing, is to cultivate a good relationship with solitude. That’s where you’re going to be.

Zibby: I think a lot about people not having time to read since I made that the title of this podcast. People are always talking to me about that. I have four kids. I was having trouble fitting it in. I always do because I love it. Anything you love, you find time to do. Everything’s a tradeoff, essentially.

Suzanne: Do you read before bed?

Zibby: When do I read?

Suzanne: Yeah.

Zibby: Now I read all the time because I’m doing this podcast.

Suzanne: That’s great. That was a great way to make yourself read more.

Zibby: Right? I know. Thank you for calling me out on my…

Suzanne: On your secret motivation?

Zibby: My motivation to read more. Now I’ve looped in hundreds of authors to make me stay on track.

Suzanne: So awesome.

Zibby: I used to just read before bed, and a lot of times I would fall asleep, and always on vacation. I read quickly. I don’t know about you, but I could read five books in a week on vacation. That would sustain me for the next couple months until my kids’ next vacation. Although now that I’m thinking about it, I didn’t actually read a lot on my vacations with kids because that’s not even really like a vacation.

Suzanne: Right, because your time with your kids. There’s even more time with kids when they’re on vacation.

Zibby: Now I read all day. I bring books around me everywhere. All those dead times when you could be on your phone, if you read, the pages really add up.

Suzanne: That’s the biggest thing, the phones. The phones are what is keeping people from reading. There’s that thing on the iPhone where you can see how much screen time you spend on your phone. I took Facebook off my phone when I saw what that number was. I can’t remember what it was, but it was appalling. It was probably well over an hour, at least, that I was on my phone every day. For some people, that’s probably not even that much. If you think about, I could spend an hour on Facebook or I could read a lot. I can read a lot in an hour. That makes a big difference. It’s really challenging to become a writer today, especially if you’re younger and grown up with this technology, I would think. I grew up without it. I didn’t get an email address until I was twenty-two or twenty-one.

Zibby: Me too. I feel like we’re the same age.

Suzanne: Probably, forty-three.

Zibby: Yeah. Everything you were saying about things going on in the world in your book at a certain age, I was like, oh, me too.

Suzanne: Same for you? There you go.

Zibby: Yeah, same thing.

Suzanne: We’re this weird cusp generation where we came of age without this stuff but adopted it in our twenties.

Zibby: Totally. When do you like to read?

Suzanne: All the time, kind of like you, if you’re waiting for a bus or you’re sitting outside a doctor’s appointment. Then I also read, often, in the morning if I have a writing day. I also teach. If it’s a day when I’m writing, I often read first thing in the morning. That really helps me get into the right frame of mind to write. I read every night before bed without question, and often for at least an hour. I’m kind of a night owl, but definitely throughout the day. It’s all I want to do. I love it. There’s so many books.

Zibby: I know. Me too. Is this pathetic that all I want to do is sit here and read about things that are not actually in my own life?

Suzanne: No, it’s the best.

Zibby: I know. I agree. Sometimes I’m like, what does this mean? Some escapist, I don’t know.

Suzanne: The alternative is being on Facebook or something, or I guess interacting with people.

Zibby: Who wants to do that? Keep reading and writing, that’s my happy place too.

Suzanne: Me too, definitely.

Zibby: Great. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I hope I get to meet you in person at some point. Thank you so much for all your time.

Suzanne: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Take care.

Suzanne Morrison, YOGA BITCH