No Time to Waste on Haste

I find it difficult to give up on anything I’ve written. I don’t like the feeling of putting time and effort into a piece only to see it fail, so I tend to stick with crappy older work too long.

I’m reminded of college, the first time, right after high school. Before I got there, I’d decided to major in computer science, but before I finished, I knew I’d made the wrong choice. I didn’t stop, though. I didn’t change my major. I felt too invested in it, in terms of both time and money, to start all over. I was impatient to begin my adult life. Never mind that I’d been an adult already, working a full time job, for several years. I’d assumed the identity of computer-science-major-who-will-graduate-and-get-a-high-paying-job-with-a-guaranteed-pension-and-medical-insurance. Not because I cared very much about computer science and not because I couldn’t make a life working the job I already had. I built my identity around what I thought I was supposed to want and do as a high school honor student whose parents preached stability. To not finish college, or even to prolong my time there by changing my major, would be to fail, in my mind. I was determined to finish what I’d started, and I felt I was running against the clock of my life.

What followed was nearly a decade of heartache. I graduated and I got that so-called great job, but the longer I had it, the more miserable I became. By not giving up on a poorly chosen college major, I’d given up on myself.

Why was it easier for me to keep following a path I sensed was leading me in the wrong direction than it was to stop, reconsider, and redirect myself? When I think back on this time in my life, I must admit that I enjoyed being recognized as an achiever, as someone who could succeed. Becoming a college graduate meant earning respect. Landing a good job led to more respect and recognition. Advancing in that job—earning promotions, salary increases, greater responsibility—meant I would accumulate recognition and respect, from family members, from friends, from peers.

I had a deep need to be valued, and that need persists today. I know that it comes from feeling unvalued as I was growing up. I always made good grades and was well-behaved in school, and this was the only aspect of who I was that I ever felt recognized for as a child. Nothing else about me ever seemed to be very important, least of all what I would have said were my passions. I suppose, then, that I internalized this type of achievement as a way to earn love. Although love isn’t how I’d currently characterize the attention I received for being a good student.

The need to feel valued continues to manifest itself in how I’ve approached my writing life, particularly over the past year. After I finished drafting the memoir I’d wanted to write since my early thirties, I felt overcome by an impatience to publish something, anything. I felt a great need to taste again that respect and recognition that comes from succeeding. So I committed myself to submitting whenever and wherever I could. But, under pressure, I struggled to create new work that had any substance. I pulled out pieces I’d written one, two, even three or more years before, revised and reworked them here and there, and sent them off. Truth is, I should have never let them sit so long in the first place. I should have been submitting regularly all along. But the truth also is that I’m a different writer now than I was when those pieces were composed, and also, most of that work probably is better off staying on my hard drive. Just as when I was younger, it’s difficult for me to face the fact that sometimes putting in time and effort (and money) does not lead to either immediate or soul-affirming success. Sometimes all that work is just the smoothing out that must happen before a desirable path can be built.

This need to feel valued is, in its essence, a need to belong. Sometimes the desire to belong can be so strong, we can lose ourselves in activities or groups that are actually quite a poor fit. We confuse belonging with going along.

I’ve done the poor fit thing so often in my life, by now I should be able to sense it the way my dog knows a rabbit is in the yard before it can be seen. Yet, I still too easily aim in the wrong direction. My journey toward authenticity in the type of work I do began with that realization way back in college that I was on the wrong path, but my progress since then has been painfully slow and circular. I repeat mistakes. I correct again, and again. Being able to even think of myself as a writer, to even say those words out loud—I am a writer—is progress I’ve had to fight for. It’s so deeply ingrained in me to not trust what I truly want.

The challenge I face now is determining what kind of writer I am, aside from the usual discussion of genre. What does publishing mean to me? What does compensation mean to me? What is my purpose for writing at all? Last year I submitted a lot, and my work was rejected a lot. But I didn’t write a lot, and what I did write fell flat. I spent a great deal of time trying to get my work out into the world, unsuccessfully. And what I’ve learned from this is that the act of writing itself is more important to me than the pursuit of publication. Because I’ve missed writing. A lot. I’ve missed the fun of trying new things in my writing, of trying to write a thing because I feel compelled to write it, without worrying about how or when or if it might be published. And I’ve learned that I probably need to just write whatever it is I want to write and then send it out right away, before I think or worry too much, before I have a chance to become afraid. And then I should write again. I’ve learned that I care about the quality of my writing more than about earning money from it, which is to say I want to be the kind of writer who might one day be paid for what she writes rather than the kind who writes to be paid. The respect I need to earn is my own.

I realize that I began to want a type of writing life that is not the best fit for me, because of the deep need I still have to feel recognized and valued, to belong. I am never going to be that writer who endlessly pitches ideas and dashes off articles and lives off her freelance income. I am never going to be that writer who earns an MFA and teaches writing at a university and lectures at all the best conferences. I am never going to be that writer who churns out six novels a year and formats them all herself for e-readers and treats her book publishing like a business. I’m still not sure where in the literary world I will end up, but I have to believe there is a place for the kind of writer I want to be. Maybe writing will be less a business or career for me than a lifestyle. Maybe it will simply be how I spend my days.

I’ve been impatient with my work in part because of how very long I’ve been on this journey of mine. I always feel that pressure of running against my own clock. Fifty is looming on my horizon, but I realize now that I’ve been impatient in the wrong way. I don’t have time to waste on anything that isn’t the right fit. I’ve tried to make my old work, perhaps, into more than it truly is when, really, I should think of it all as necessary practice, what I had to do to get to where I want to go, just as every step of this journey has been. There’s no way to compress time, we can only make good use of what we’re given. Forward is the best direction to go.

 

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #6 of 52. 

 

 

Combating Chaos

Too much is happening too quickly, and every day I feel sucked into the chaos. This is a bad time to be a worrier.

On Friday evening into Saturday as the effects of the new president’s travel ban became apparent, I could not force myself away from the news reports. I could not escape the sense that I was witnessing all that I so loved about my country slipping away. The laws we enacted to protect the vulnerable are proving to be much more tenuous than we assumed they’d be. It’s been too easy these first two weeks for the new administration to annihilate laws. And there seems to be no one with any power willing to be a hero of the people.

By the end of the day on Saturday, my joints ached and my chest felt tight. All I wanted to do was cover myself with a blanket, have a stiff drink, and detach. And I’m not an immigrant or a refugee. My skin color is the same as that of the men who penned our Constitution. I will not be personally violated by the ban or the wall. But I am a citizen of this country, and I care.

I am a person who often feels too much. When I read about people being put on planes and sent back to dangerous places where they have no home or resources, I cannot be neutral. When I read about children unable to be united with their parents, I am reading as a mother, and I know the pain I would feel if I was helpless to keep my children out of danger. I don’t understand how anyone hearing these stories cannot feel this pain, how anyone can turn their back while people are being treated this way.

Being a person who feels too much makes it difficult to deal with chaos. I’m thrown off kilter. I forget to do everyday things that need doing. I realize also that I stoke the chaos by giving into it, by allowing it to consume me. I know I must become more disciplined at tuning it out, at least for long enough that I can maintain my equilibrium. I must find joy in each day despite all the sadness in the world around me.

It’s too easy to ignore my own goals when it feels as if the whole world is going to hell. It’s too easy to believe that the work I want to do will not be enough. It’s too easy to believe I should be doing something else, something more, especially when things are changing so fast. Writing takes thought and patience. Fast isn’t usually how the type of writing I want to do happens. I worry that by the time an idea is fleshed out, the pivotal cultural or political moment that inspired it will have passed.

In a blog post earlier this week, Dani Shapiro wrestled with similar doubts and concluded, “But there is another kind of protest, another way of refusing to succumb to despair. And so we sit down to write.” It is helpful for me to hear this from someone I respect as a writer.

We each must consider how we can best use our own talents and interests to cope with the chaos and to contribute to the cause of resisting the destruction of what we most value. There is a role for each of us in preserving our freedoms.

Because so much I care about is presently under attack, I must decide how I will prioritize my own fight. I ache for those being turned away by this administration. I fear we will become embroiled in another world war. I’m afraid for friends and family who are gay or Jewish or Latino or from any place in the world besides western Europe. I worry that my daughter and I will be marginalized because we are female, that my entire family will be marginalized because we don’t identify as Christian. I’m afraid that public education will no longer be available for my children. I don’t know how we’ll get health insurance next year, or if we’ll be able to afford it, or what it will cover. I fear that our National Parks, our waterways, our atmosphere will be irreparably damaged. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to publicly express any of these fears without the threat of punishment.

I cannot possibly focus on every one of these issues with the same intensity. None of us can. We would burn ourselves out. I must choose a path of resistance that will make the best use of my expertise, my interests, and my time, while allowing me space to recharge enough to keep going.

I cannot allow resistance to become all that I am. I must spend time disconnected from all the bad news, focused instead on what is still good in this world. On Wednesday, Rachel Maddow reported that the tea party movement has never had as much support as the protest movement that is going on right now. There is love, and there is hope.

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #5 of 52. 

Channeling My Twitter Obsession Into Poetry

Not sure if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I love Twitter. Some might say I’m a little obsessed with it.

One drawback of this is that I frequently find myself sucked into drama on Twitter surrounding some social or political issue. I love the access to people and ideas from all over the world, but it can also get overwhelming. At times I’ve had to step away completely to recenter myself. Plus, as with any social media platform, time tends to evaporate when one gets dragged into these dramas, so it’s necessary to put on the brakes in order to get anything of substance accomplished.

That’s not to say that I think Twitter is petty or inconsequential. I believe that Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, are radically altering how social and political problems are understood and addressed in this country, because these platforms facilitate such timely and broad communication.

One day not very long ago, I was scrolling through conflicting political opinions on Twitter and I was struck with the idea of making a poem out of them. And so, in the ephemeral spirit of Twitter, I’ve created a quick and dirty site called Hashtag Snapshots where I’ve begun to post found poems that I typically whip up in one day based on a single hashtag that has captured my interest and won’t release my brain until I give it its due.

Yesterday I felt compelled to address the #Kaepernick controversy. I welcome your thoughts and reactions. If you’re interested in my methodology for creating the poems, it’s here.

The project is on Twitter (of course): @HashtagSnapshot

The Right Thing

I’ve been in a period of regrouping as of late. I’ve felt off track, or off the right track.

This isn’t the first time. I have a long history of becoming deeply involved in the wrong thing. I’m actually doing much better these days than back when I was a younger adult who stuck it out too long in the wrong relationships and the wrong career and ended up so sick I couldn’t leave my house.

I’ve learned how to let go of the wrong things sooner and how to avoid getting involved in absolutely wrong things in the first place.

I’m doing better. These days when I realize I’ve wandered onto the wrong path, it’s at least a path somewhere in the neighborhood of the right path. I know this, even if I haven’t yet figured out where the exact right path is. I’m close. I can feel it.

Still, there’s room for improvement. I would like not to be so susceptible to being led astray. It’s not even the lure of bright shiny things that woos me. It’s that I want so badly to be part of something meaningful, I’ll follow the wrong path too far, for too long. Continue reading “The Right Thing”

Evolution Revolution

I feel an evolution happening within me—a revolution really. I’m beginning to feel free in a way I haven’t before. I’m beginning to feel settled, on the inside.

For decades, I’ve been trying to figure out how to live authentically. I recognized when I was in my mid-twenties that I was struggling to allow myself to be seen. I had developed a habit of hiding behind what I’ve come to think of as my costume, the outer me that I projected to all others.

On the inside, I was someone different from the person everyone thought they knew. I had learned how to observe what people expected from me, what made people respond to me, and how to contort myself into these shapes. When I was very young, I wasn’t conscious of doing this. But as I matured into adulthood, I became aware of the disconnect between my inner and outer selves. It manifested as a tension that threatened to rip me apart. I managed to cross the breaking point without being swallowed, and I’ve been slowly making my way across the other side ever since.

But I’m still not living authentically. Yes, it’s gotten a lot easier to reveal myself in some situations, but there are still too many instances when I bend and twist myself. Why do I do this?

Continue reading “Evolution Revolution”