By Lindsey Wojcik
It has been said that “loving yourself is the greatest revolution.”
In her new memoir Raw: My Journey From Anxiety to Joy, author Bella Mahaya Carter undergoes a self-love revelation. In addition to examining her relationships with her family, friends, and career, Carter explores the relationship she has with herself as she faces health issues and mourns the loss of five family members.
Years ago, Carter experienced stomach pain and breathing issues that were diagnosed as mild gastro reflux. In lieu of taking medication and undergoing surgery, she opted to listen to her body and heal holistically. Carter settled on a raw-food diet, which helped curb the stomach issues but offered no relief to her increasing anxiety or chest pains. In search of peace of mind, Carter embarked on a long path of self-discovery and experienced a spiritual awakening that led her to earn a Masters of Arts in spiritual psychology.
Now a writing teacher, developmental editor, and empowerment coach, Carter spent some time answering my questions about her journey of self-discovery, why no one should be ashamed of their anxiety, and how studying dance at The Juilliard School informed her writing.
Lindsey Wojcik: What sparked your passion for writing? Did you always want to write or did it grow organically?
Bella Mahaya Carter: My passion for writing grew organically. As a young dance student at Juilliard, I loved choreography. I wanted to tell stories. And I wanted to do it in new ways. I choreographed a piece using Pablo Neruda’s poem, “El Hijo,” in which a cellist, an actor (reading the poem), and a dancer all appeared on stage together. I choreographed the dancer’s movements, and had her interact with the cellist and actor, who became integral parts of the choreography.
At Scripps College, I discovered Shakespeare and was amazed that plays could be written in poetry. I spent hours in the library reading verse, while simultaneously listening to recordings. When my Shakespeare professor offered a class on contemporary women writers, I fell in love with Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Margaret Laurence, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, and others. That whetted my appetite, and I discovered Ursula Heigi, Julia Alverez, Sandra Cisneros, Anita Diamant, Janet Fitch, Gayle Brandeis, and many others. My favorite author as a young adult was Isabelle Allende. Reading The House of The Spirits filled with me conviction to write my own family stories.
LW: Who were your early influences and who continues to inspire you?
BMC: In addition to the writers I mentioned above, early influences included Gabriel García Márquez, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, and Paul Bowles. Mary Oliver and the mystic poets Rumi and Kabir inspire me today. I also love reading Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Mary Karr, Brené Brown, Anne Lamott, Rachel Resnick, Patty Smith, and Eve Ensler, as well as lesser-known and unknown memoirists. I’m also a fan of self-help and spiritual psychology texts.
LW: What inspired your memoir Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy?
BMC: The only thing I knew for sure, when starting to write my memoir, was that I had to write. It didn’t matter what. I knew something needed to be expressed through me—that I had something to say. When I outlined Raw, I thought I was writing a book about how raw food cured my chronic stomach problems. But over the five years it took me to write the book, it began to write me. My life unfolded in ways I couldn’t have predicted. By listening to the call to write, which I knew was sacred, I acted on inner wisdom. My ego would have preferred that I knew exactly where I was going and had everything figured out. It did its best to try to control things. But writing a book—and living a life—is a journey. I outlined my three sections: body, mind, and spirit. I was clear about the first two, but fuzzy about the third. Thankfully, I understood that an outline is a living document and it would change—though I had no idea how much. Unbeknownst to me, I hadn’t yet lived the spiritual part of my story. I was in for a wild ride.
LW: Your journey in the book begins with the diagnosis of gastro reflux. Instead of choosing medication and surgery, you chose to listen to your body and figure out how to relieve your symptoms on your own. What lead you to follow a more holistic path and what were you surprised to discover on your journey?
BMC: What led me to follow a holistic path was my conviction that my body contained wisdom and that true healing would only come through paying attention and listening to it. I didn’t want to manage symptoms; I wanted to heal. Medication felt like a cover up, not a cure. I sensed that if I slowed down and paid attention, that process would lead to healing, transformation, and growth—which is exactly what happened. I was surprised to discover that I was dealing with mental health issues. I didn’t know anxiety could produce physical symptoms. I’d always been capable and competent. I accomplished a lot, was organized and efficient. I had wonderful friends and family. But, deep down, I was anxious and racing around like a headless chicken, all the while trying to be perfect. I didn’t realize the roles fear and anxiety played in my life until five people in our family died within three years, I was executor of a contentious estate, and developed an anxiety disorder. I was afraid to leave my house. Navigating all this with minimal medication taught me a lot.
LW: You also discuss going back to school and receiving a Master of Arts degree in spiritual psychology. How did that inform your writing?
BMC: I learned so much about myself and the ways in which I held myself back from living the life I wanted to live. I began to reframe my perceived failures as opportunities and started venturing toward the edges of my comfort zone. I began taking risks and thinking less about what others thought of me. I honored my creative urges. Whenever I did this I was rewarded. I learned that while pain was unavoidable, suffering was optional. I discovered how I innocently created my own suffering and that I didn’t have to do that. I slowed down, stopped fighting, and gained freedom. I discovered that I wasn’t stuck with my bad habits, which felt as if they were made of concrete, but in truth were made of my own thinking. I learned that no thought has power over me unless I believe it. And I can choose which thoughts to believe. This awareness has been incredibly liberating. I write about this in my memoir, which Independent Publisher called a “groundbreaking book” because of the intersection of memoir and self-help.
My master’s degree program also helped me learn to trust my instincts, in life, but also with my writing. So the way I write has changed (less angst) as has what I write, since I’m eager to share what I’ve learned about living a larger, more authentic, and freer life.
LW: You also attended Juilliard and eventually earned a Bachelor of Arts in dance and literature. Has dance helped you with writing in any way? If so, how?
BMC: Oh, yes, definitely. Dance cultivated my discipline and taught me that it takes years for artists to develop their craft. I was accustomed to rigorous training and hours of practice, which prepared me for the long haul required to become a writer. It takes at least a decade to develop competence as a dancer and as a writer, longer to achieve a modicum of mastery. Of course there are exceptions, naturally gifted souls, for whom it may come more quickly, but it took me decades and I think this is more common than not. I’ve also discovered that my best writing comes from my body. For 10 years I wrote almost exclusively from my body, giving voice to different body parts. That wisdom astonished me. When I write I “listen” with my heart and gut, but also with my hands, feet, neck, shoulders, back, and limbs. This makes writing a visceral rather than cerebral experience, which I hope is translated in my work.
LW: Eventually, you found yourself extremely stressed, which led to an anxiety disorder. This time you decided to take medication but still sought holistic remedies. What do you hope to convey to readers of your book about your experience with anxiety—in treating it both medically and holistically?
BMC: I want people to know that they do not have to suffer! As much as I’ve found therapy helpful, I’ve also discovered that sometimes dwelling on the content of our thoughts is less helpful than understanding how we think. For me it took a combination of therapy, time, and insight, but I cured—and created a new relationship with—my anxiety, which is a human emotion we all experience. If I could do this, anyone can. I want people to know that anxiety doesn’t have to run their lives! I encourage people to reach out for help. I was ashamed of what I was going through. Even so, I tried dozens of therapies and holistic healing modalities, which I describe in my memoir. I’ve continued to deepen my understanding of anxiety—where it comes from and how I innocently created it. I work with clients using a variety of coaching modalities, including but not limited to instruction, guidance, and conversations around the Three Principles of Mind, Consciousness, and Thought.
Also, I want people to know that if they need medication, that’s okay. I struggled with this and had to relax the rigidity of my belief system and be willing to accept that medication was a viable tool, if used properly. It was the last tool I reached for, but there were times when it was necessary. And beating myself up over it only exacerbated my anxiety.
LW: In addition to publishing your memoir, you teach writing and coach writers. What’s your teaching philosophy and what do you hope writers learn from you as their coach?
BMC: My teaching philosophy is: If you’re called to write you must write; it’s your soul talking. And also: The need to say, “yes” to your creative practice is like the need to bathe; it has to be done on a regular basis. What I hope writers learn from me as their coach is how to turn inward and trust their own wisdom. This is true for all the coaching I do: writing, life, and anxiety coaching. We have everything we need within us to create, heal, and thrive. What keeps us from any of these outcomes is our own thinking, which looks real, but is illusory. My job is to point students and clients in the direction of what’s real.
LW: What’s next for you?
BMC: Lots more writing. I’ve got several manuscripts in process. I’ve learned so much about navigating anxiety since writing my memoir that I’m chewing on a self-help book on the subject. I’ve also got a spiritual psychology guidebook for writers percolating. I’m also expanding my teaching and coaching practices to work with students and clients worldwide. I’ll continue teaching writing, which I love, and I’ve recently started working with people suffering with anxiety. I have a life coaching practice in which I support and empower people to take risks in service to fulfilling heartfelt dreams. I’m excited about working with writers and non-writers alike both in groups and individually, in person and online. I also plan to teach workshops at retreat centers, where I’ll offer creative writing, creative movement, guided meditations, and other practices that enhance personal well-being, healing, creativity, and growth.
LW: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and what advice do you give to aspiring writers?
BMC: What comes to mind is an E.L. Doctorow quote, which I often share with writers: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’d add that the road is mountainous, and it’s impossible to see what’s around any given bend. So you have to be where you are, work with what you’ve got, slow down, stop fighting, accept what you can’t change, let go of your need to be in control, have faith in your vehicle, as well as the terrain, and trust that step-by-step, moment-by-moment, you will find your way. This is true for anyone actually, because life can be a lot like driving at night in the fog. But we only need to see what’s right in front of us. We can make the whole trip that way!