Connect with yourself until you feel a longing to connect with others you care deeply about.
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dawna Markova.
Inspirational speaker, writer, and researcher, Dawna Markova, Ph.D. is CEO emeritus of Professional Thinking Partners, an organization that teaches collaborative thinking to CEOs and senior executives around the world. She has served as a Senior Affiliate of the Organizational Learning Center at MIT, and a consultant member of the Society for Organizational Learning and has received a Vision to Action award for her work originating the Random Acts of Kindness movement, the Foster Grandparenting and Peer Counseling programs, and the World Wide Women’s Web.
One of the creators of the best-selling Random Acts of Kindness series, Dawna is the author of many other inspirational books, including Reconcilable Differences, Collaborative Intelligence, A Spot of Grace,I Will Not Die an Unlived Life, The Smart Parenting Revolution, The Open Mind, How Your Child IS Smart, No Enemies Within, Learning Unlimited, and The Art of the Possible, as well as the Open Mind Audio Series with Sounds True. She is also a contributor to For She Is the Tree of Life: Grandmothers Through the Eyes Of Women Writers, and Fabric of the Future.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
I was the youngest daughter of a man who climbed the ladder of success to become the CEO of Hiram Walker Inc. No one knew the family secret: he could not read. As the youngest son of an illiterate father and mother who escaped the Russian pogroms, he dropped out of school at a young age to earn money for the other 8 children in the family. After school I read all the papers on his desk into a tape recorder and he memorized it all late at night. He also drove me every Friday morning to Hell’s Kitchen to be with my grandmother who was a midwife and heaer and passed on her wisdom while we made bread and dinner for the Sabbath family gathering.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life?
I was inspired by the newspapers and magazine I read into that big old tape recorder. My father often looked at me and shook his head, saying “You’d make such a great leader. What a shame you are a girl!” My favorite Aunt Chuch read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn while I lay on her well traveled thighs and she stroked my hair, daydreaming of places and adventures that seemed beyond my little girl reach.
What made you decide to bring your message to the greater world?
I have written 3 books that started movements: Random Acts of Kindness, Kid’s Random Acts of Kindness, and I Will Not Die An Unlived Life.
I began the latter the night my father died with a shrug. At 3:00 AM I turned my grief to ink and wrote a poem, more anthem than requiem. The first line was, “I will not die an unlived life.” The next, “I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.” My hand and heart rushed on, “I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible; to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. I choose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed goes on to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.”
Six months later, the poem was printed on the back cover of the book. Inspired by an illiterate man born to an illiterate mother, it has circled the globe, appearing in South Africa, China, Mexico and Minnesota. Apparent strangers tell me a copy of it has been hanging over their desks for years, inspiring them forward. The seed he planted has indeed gone on to blossom in me and through me as fruit.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book? Did the actual results align with your expectations?
The truth is that I had no expectations. For Practice Random Acts of Kindness, in 1993, I was leading training groups for psychotherapists and social workers and since performing random acts of kindness gave me such joy and aliveness, it seemed natural to ask participants to write about similar experiences they had in their lives when others performed random acts for them. As a homework assignment, I asked them to perform some themselves. The results were astounding. I was writing a different book at the time but I mentioned to my then publishers how contagious these experiences were and suggested they combine them along with others into a little book. What was true for me then was that I wanted to dig back into the original book I was writing. One of my publishers agreed to do most of the publicity. The rest, as they say, is history. I was committed to creating such a book for chidlren, since I had spent so much of my life as a teacher working with chidlren who no one else wanted to teach so I sent in their stories and pushed the publishers to publish a book for kids. That movement took off around the world with shcools sponsoring RAK days in multiples countries and translations spreading around the world. I Decades later, I now live on a little island in the middle of the acific and once a year I pass a big sign outside the elementary school that says “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.”
(The phrase “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless gifts of beauty” was first written on a cocktain napkin in 1992, based on the phrase “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty”. Herbert’s children’s book Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beautywas published in February 1993. In later years, others including Oprah, renamed the idea and spread it so much further than we could, which is a total delight. No one can own a movement!)
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book?
As I mentioned above, when I wrote the poem “I Will Not Die An Unlived Life,” I had no idea anyone would read it. In Vermont, I tied a rope at the back of my house so I could, in a blinding snowstorm, find my way to the barn to feed my horse and then come home again. The poem was my rope as I journeyed through grief. Diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter in 1999, I withdrew to a tiny cabin on a mountain top and once more turned my grief to ink so I could find my way through that storm. I had no intention that anyone else would read what I wrote. I was once more writing myself home. In three months, I realized I had written a book and submitted it to my publishers who put the poem on the back cover. I really had no idea that anyone else would want to read the book because ti was so deeply personal. But as soon as it was pubished, I began to get letters and emails from people who told me how much the poem had helped them. Twenty years later, it is rare that a day goes by without one. A woman in New Mexico wrote an opera based on it, a Canadian artist created a huge oil painting which now hangs in a Toronto museum based on it. A woman in South Africa, Nomathembe Luhabe took the poem all over her country and read it to crowds of people as she helped grow Nelson Mandela’s movement to liberate their country. In 2004, she called me from Jo Burg and said there was someone on the hone who wantd to ask me a question. It was Mandela who asked me “What is the connection between grief and passion?” A year later, The Dalai Lama invited me to come to Dhamsala to meet him. He told me how the poem and the book had touched him deeply and asked me to sign his well worn copy of that little paperback. My tears had indeed turned to ink.
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
When I opened the first box of books from the printer and realized that I Will Not Die An Unlived Life was going to be read by people I did not know — an exhausted woman in an Arizona prison cell and some guy in Kentucky with pizza grease on his fingers — I called the publisher and told them that I had changed my mind and didn’t want the book out there. They laughed at first and then Mary Jane Ryan quoted me a line written by Emerson to Thoreau, “Write what is true for you, and it will be recognized as true for all people.” A few months after publication, Brush Dance printers in San Francisco printed a hundred copies of a card with the poem and art work by a woman I never met named Rashani Rea. That card too has been translated into 16 languages and, although Brush Dance is no longer, copies of the card and the poem appear everywhere: on websites and blogs, over people’s desks and in meditation centers. There have been ties when I get pissed when someone sends me the poem changed, or words and phrases omitted, but it isn’t possible to hold onto lvoement or catch the wind of a storm in my hands.
Can you articulate why you think books have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
A publisher recently told me that no one is buying books anymore. “They are writing memoirs because they want their stories told, but they only read their deices.” I disagreed with him then and now. I believe reading is the new kale. It has been my experience that what is true, deeply true for one of us, will be true for all of us. I was trained as a cognitive neurosicentist and I was and am astournded by how much of the uman brain is dedicated to making social connections. We don’t burrow in a log to make ourselves safe, we reach towards one another. As long as there are humans, that will be true. Movements and revolution and true change are all based on connection. And storyelling is the connective tissue of every human being.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
Tuning in every morning to the seeded longing to blossom that pushes aganst the hard shell that protects my heart.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
For years, every car I drove had license plates that read “NMW” no matter what. It is my mantra and reminds me that it is only when I reject the longing to give rests in the seeds in my heart that I can be hurt. I just compelted a new book that was rejected by 8 publishers before it found its current home. I had lots of chances therefore to practices.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?
I don’t know how to spark a movement. That’s not up to me. I don’t know how to network. That requires trying to get something from others. I do have a network of people I respect and care about. I share my questions and latest writing with them.
As for five things? They all boil down to 4 words: Reach in. Reach out.
1. Connect with yourself until you feel a longing to connect with others you care deeply about.
2. Ask yourself open questions, that is questions to which you cannot possibly know the answers.
3. Become comfortbale spending lots of time in solitude until you actually like it.
4. Refuse to reject yourself no matter what.
5. Ask yourself, in a curious tone of voice, “What’s unfinished for me to give?”
“What’s unfinsihed for me to learn?”
“What’s unfinished for me to experience?”
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next?
One of moral imagination. If you don’t understand why that is so necessary in these times, no explanation would matter.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Since I’ve been writing a new book for the last two years, I have disconnected from all social media. The book is Titled Living Loved Life: Awakening Wisdom Through Sotries of Inspiration, Challenge and Possibility.” It will be published in October by Mango and I’ll be found on all social media then.
Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you.