Bella Mahaya Carter: “Letting go of the end result and giving myself permission to dream and play freed me”

Letting go of the end result and giving myself permission to dream and play freed me. I threw caution to the wind and went on a wild ride, tossing everything I loved learning about and longed to teach into the proposal. I didn’t worry or strategize about how I’d be received. I didn’t have to […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Letting go of the end result and giving myself permission to dream and play freed me. I threw caution to the wind and went on a wild ride, tossing everything I loved learning about and longed to teach into the proposal. I didn’t worry or strategize about how I’d be received. I didn’t have to do things “right.” I held nothing back, and dared myself to live from the inside out, risking everything to say a large and luminous “yes” to myself, to be absolutely, fully, and unconditionally me!

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bella Mahaya Carter.

Bella Mahaya Carter is the author of Where Do You Hang Your Hammock?: Finding Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book She is a creative writing teacher, empowerment coach, and speaker, and author of an award-winning memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy, and a collection of narrative poems, Secrets of My Sex.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I was a dancer and choreographer before I became a writer. I told stories though movement. After a back injury prematurely ended my dance career, I discovered literature and film. I’ve always loved stories. As a child, I made up tall tales, which I tested on unsuspecting neighborhood kids. I was curious to see what was believable so I’d spontaneously spew outrageous narratives. I’d come clean at the end and say, “I’m just kidding,” but this behavior pissed off my sister, who’d look at me with disgust and say, “You’re such a bullshit artist.” Artist, yes, I’ll take that. Bullshit? Well, one person’s bullshit is another person’s treasure. I was — and still am — fascinated by human behavior, psychology, the human condition, and spirituality. These passions led me to writing, which I’ve used as a tool to better understand myself and others.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I share this story in my memoir, Raw, but it’s worth repeating here because it showed me the importance of risk-taking and trusting the small voice within when it whispers “yes.”

In 2010, I received a call for proposals for a teaching residency at my alma mater, Scripps College. It seemed like the ideal next step for me and I wanted to apply, but the program was described as a “prestigious honor,” designed for “distinguished” alumnae. I didn’t feel good enough to be the recipient of a prestigious honor, nor did I think of myself as distinguished. So I ignored the email, along with a powerful inner voice urging me to go for it.

A few weeks later another call for proposals arrived in my inbox. I reread the information and again felt a strong inner pull to do it, but I still felt unqualified. Maybe I’ll start writing a proposal now, I thought, and submit it next year. That would give me time to put together something great.

Another few weeks passed, and a third call for proposals came. Wow, I thought, what if nobody’s applying? Maybe they’re hard up for proposals this year.

I spent the next week sequestered in my office, hammering my keyboard eight hours a day. I considered what I was doing an exercise. I probably won’t get this, I thought, but it’s good practice, and might help me clarify my work goals.

Letting go of the end result and giving myself permission to dream and play freed me. I threw caution to the wind and went on a wild ride, tossing everything I loved learning about and longed to teach into the proposal. I didn’t worry or strategize about how I’d be received. I didn’t have to do things “right.” I held nothing back, and dared myself to live from the inside out, risking everything to say a large and luminous “yes” to myself, to be absolutely, fully, and unconditionally me!

At the end of the week, I had a thirty-page proposal: “Body, Mind, Spirit: Transformational Creative Practices for Living Your Best Life,” which was a synthesis of my lifelong passion for movement, literature, psychology, and spirituality — everything I’d loved and practiced for over forty years. The image I selected for the cover was a women suspended in midair, leaping from one mountaintop to another, which resonated, since I felt like I was taking a huge leap of faith submitting the proposal.

It turned out there had been no death of proposals that year, and someone on the selection committee said mine was among the most comprehensive they’d ever seen. “Sometimes we receive proposals that are like seeds,” the program director later told me. “They need to be watered. They need time to sprout. More often than not, I work with the winner to develop her residency. But yours,” she said, “came to us as a flowering tree. All we had to do was plant it.”

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

The biggest challenge I faced in my journey to becoming an author was surrendering my dream of being traditionally published by a major publishing house, along with the fear that I wouldn’t be a “real” (or good enough) author. For years I oscillated between self-doubt and grand dreams, and I didn’t want to relinquish one iota of my ambition. Little did I know that loosening my grip on my aspirations, and being open to real-life opportunities would lead to the fulfillment of my dream — it just didn’t look like I expected. I write about this in detail in Where Do You Hang Your Hammock?

Here’s a sliver of that story: I thought I needed to land a traditional publishing deal in order to be a legitimate author. But as I neared completion of my memoir Raw, I realized that I didn’t want to shop my memoir to agents or editors of small presses. A few years earlier I’d shopped my proposal to agents, who wanted to pigeonhole me as a raw food expert. Although my memoir had a strong raw food component, I was more interested in having broader conversations about consciousness, creativity, personal transformation, and growth. I didn’t want to shrink into someone else’s narrow idea of who I (or my book) should be.

Meanwhile, I knew people and loved what was happening at She Writes Press, an award-winning hybrid publisher for women authors. The idea of having creative control over things like my cover, title, editorial decisions, timing, rights, and more appealed to me. I had lots of other reasons to publish with She Writes Press, yet I’d hesitated. Again. Just like I’d done with my Scripps College residency. I didn’t fully trust my inner guidance — until I realized that I was being hijacked by my own ego. When I finally extracted myself from its gnarly claw, I dipped into the subtle yet radiant inner guidance that my Wise Self provided, and took a deeper cut at this lesson. I learned that legitimacy is an inside job. I gave it to myself — and miracles happened.

I signed with She Writes Press and never looked back. The eleven months following my memoir’s release were some of the happiest and most exciting days of my life. As a result of publishing my book, I traveled around the country and connected with wonderful people. I reunited with old friends and made new ones. I got new students and clients. I expanded my practice to include Anxiety-to-Joy coaching. My work appeared in dozens of print and online venues. I gave radio and podcast interviews, was invited to speak at book clubs, and flew to Chicago to accept an award for my memoir.

Among these highlights was hearing from a reader in Okotoks, a small town in Alberta, Canada, who communicated via Instagram that she had been drawn to my book, which was on the display table at her local library. She said she enjoyed getting to know me and that my book inspired her. “Thank you for sharing your beautiful wisdom and learning with me,” she wrote. I have no idea how Raw ended up at this woman’s library, but once a book is released, you never know where it will go or whom it will touch.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t think of any funny mistakes, but I made plenty of not-so-funny ones. The good thing about mistakes, though, is that we learn from them (if we’re paying attention). My mistakes included not believing in myself; seeking validation outside myself; believing my fearful, limited thinking; feeling entitled to success; and underestimating the time it would take to develop the skills I needed to fulfill my dream of becoming an author.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Launching this book is interesting and exciting! I work with a team, which consists of my editor/publisher, publicist, graphic designer, and event coordinator. I’m writing articles, interviews, blog posts and newsletters, as well as keeping up with social medial. I’m also doing podcast and radio interviews. I enjoy all this, but during a launch cycle it’s more important than ever to write in my journal to stay grounded and connected. I have several ideas for my next book: an intergenerational family memoir, a spiritual memoir, another inspirational self-help for writers, and a poetry collection. I’m not sure which I’ll pursue. Lately I’ve been rereading old journals with the sense that my next book project may be hidden within those pages. It’s interesting revisiting my younger self. I tend to judge her harshly, so it’s a tender practice to take a step back and try to love my younger self in a way I couldn’t earlier in my life. I’m sure that when the time is right, the project I need to write next will reveal itself. I tell my students and clients not to worry about what to write. If you’re listening closely and showing up for your creative practice, the work will let you know what it wants to be.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your new book, ‘Where Do You Hang Your Hammock’?

This story comes from my book’s introduction: Years ago, my husband and daughter gave me a hammock for Mother’s Day. I loved it, but I didn’t know where to put it. We cleared and demolished an old toolshed by the side of the house to make room for the hammock in a quiet spot, beneath a canopy of eucalyptus and ficus trees. I felt protected and buoyant there and spent countless hours reading, dozing, and gazing at leaves and sky. It was more than just my happy place; it was a retreat and respite from my busy mind.

Then, one particularly stressful day, I walked outside and everything had changed. My neighbor had cut a huge branch from a tree, planted on his side of the fence that had provided shade I enjoyed while lying in my hammock. The previous owners of our home had cut a hole in the fence to allow that limb to stretch into our yard. The sprawling, majestic branch had become a stump. I climbed into my hammock and lay sweating beneath the blazing sun. How could he have done that? I seethed. And without even asking! I went inside the house, slathered myself with sunscreen, and returned to my hammock, but after twenty minutes, I gave up. It was too hot. Another day, I covered myself with a white sheet, hoping it would keep me cool, but I felt exposed and broiled, rather than cradled in comfort.

On weekends, I visited my hammock at different times of day, when the sun wasn’t directly overhead, but I missed my late-afternoon weekday unwinding. There were few things I enjoyed more than collapsing into my hammock at 5:00 p.m. after a long day of work.

“Let’s buy a plant,” my husband said.

“It’ll take decades to grow tall enough to provide the shade I need.”

“How about a shade structure?”

“The last thing I want to do is peer at a piece of canvas, or, worse, plastic. I want to see trees and sky.”

“Well, then let’s move the hammock,” he suggested.

“But that’s the perfect spot! It won’t work anywhere else.”

I stewed for weeks and complained often enough that my patient husband finally announced he didn’t want to hear another word about the hammock. He’d offered suggestions, and I’d shot them all down. As far as I was concerned, I’d been screwed and that was that. I ruminated over what my neighbor had done (to me!) and blamed him for my loss. I avoided my hammock for a month.

But then one afternoon, overworked and desperate for the outdoors, I tore down a rotting redwood trellis and relocated my hammock. The new area wasn’t as convenient as the previous one had been, but at least it was shady.

When I finally sank, exhausted, into the woven fabric and looked up, I was treated to a view of pink oleander blossoms; pine, eucalyptus, and walnut trees; a lovely stretch of sky — and the scent of grapefruit blossoms! This is beautiful, I thought. Why didn’t I do this sooner?

I had traded the powerful peace that I am for the illusion that somebody had taken it. And my mind had been fixed. I thought things needed to be a certain way. My rigid thinking was one thing, but the fact that I believed my rigid thinking was something else. In writing, as in life, we never know what will happen. We don’t know when our shade, or some other precious gift, might vanish. You may think, as I did, that someone or something outside you is responsible for your upset. As convincing as this appears, it’s a misconception. Our peace and happiness come from within. They’re unconditional and ever present. We may not always feel or see them in the moment, but they’re there. It wasn’t my hammock that assured my bliss; it was the permission I gave myself to let go and be completely present and alive there. With no agenda or goal, no striving, reaching, or planning, I could just be. Of course, I could do that anywhere, but the hammock was a lovely reminder and invitation.

It wasn’t until I’d written, published, and promoted my memoir that I realized what a perfect metaphor my hammock story was for the personal and professional transformation and growth I experienced while putting my book out into the world. I had to let go of a million tiny things that felt essential but didn’t matter, in order to embrace what was mine to create. But there were obstacles — moments when my well-intentioned plans and dreams were thwarted and I had to make decisions about how to move forward. These instances were accompanied by inner growth and came to me via lessons large and small. I’ve indicated seven major crossroad moments on my path to publication with the acronym MYHM, followed by a number indicating the order in which they occurred. MYHM stands for “move-your-hammock moment,” but I also like to think of this acronym as meaning “my hmm moments,” when I’m reflecting or pondering a new idea. When you’re on the writing journey, you may think your writing life needs to look or be a certain way. But your whole life is a creative process, and while much of it is outside your control, how you react to what’s placed in front of you is very much within it.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Believe in yourself and in your dreams. Learn to differentiate the voice of your inner wisdom from your overactive mind.

Based on your experience, what are the 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author? Please share a story or example for each.

The stories I wrote about above point to these five things, so I’ll just list them and add a couple thoughts.

  1. Be patient. It may take longer than you think to accomplish your writing goals. You are not entitled to success. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t great. Success doesn’t define you. Neither does failure. What counts is how your respond to these things.
  2. Learn your craft. Read a lot and write a lot. Take classes. Join a writing group.
  3. Practice. Mastery takes time. Use everything you’ve got. Grow your skills.
  4. Dream. Envision what you want and move steadily in the direction of your dreams. This works best when you let go of outcomes and remain flexible.
  5. Believe in yourself. No one can do this for you.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Discipline. Study. Creative play. Practice. Faith. They all make what I do possible.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I love to read a variety of books, and if one doesn’t inspire me I put it down. Life is too short and there are so many great books! My favorite poets are: Mary Oliver, Mark Nepo, Sharon Olds, Rumi, Hafiz, Billy Collins, Charles Bukowski, and Pablo Neruda. My favorite novelists are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and Meg Wolitzer. My favorite memoirists include Claire Bidwell Smith, Anne Lammot, Eve Ensler, Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and Glennon Doyle. My favorite mind, body, spirit/coaching authors include: Martha Beck, Brené Brown, Clarissa Pinkoles Estés, Jon Kabat-Zinn; Anita Moorjani; Dr. Gail Brenner, Elizabeth Lesser, Louise Hay, Deepak Chopra; Caroline Myss, Michael Neill, Jack Pransky, Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, Ernest Holmes, Sydney Banks; and Thich Nhat Hanh. My favorite authors who teach me about publishing and book business are Brooke Warner and Jane Friedman. Of course there are lots more. Poetry teaches me about brevity, imagery, and rhythm. I love fiction for its complex storytelling and compelling characters. Memoir touches my heart because I enjoy reading about true stories and resilience. My mind, body, spirit gurus help me navigate my life and work with equanimity and grace.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I were a person of enormous influence I’d start a movement that teaches people how to love themselves and others 24/7, no matter what. And hopefully, in the teaching, I’d learn, too!

How can our readers follow you on social media?





Thank you so much for these inspirational ideas.

Thanks for having me.

You might also like...


Enrique Delgadillo On How We Need To Redefine Success

by Karen Mangia

Julie Allen On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia

Cimeran Kapur On Redefining Success

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.