What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? (Mary Oliver)
I’m looking for a real conversion, I want to a new approach to living. I’m quitting my real job to get my head out of that space that’s been so shitty. The world is shitty in other ways, and I feel like the goddess is letting that fucknut burn Twitter to the ground so I will stop spending my time there – that’s how impossible it has been for me to stop, regardless of its effect on me.
But ‘not working’ is an absence, not a presence. How do I adjust my relationship to myself and also the world I inhabit. I’m planning some travel, but the world I’m trying to explore is really inside my head. Or something.
Words have always been my jam. But words hide as much as they reveal, and you can indeed say a thousand words and never get to the picture’s truth.
Poetry is using language to hide the words while revealing the meaning of things.
And since I always say I have no discipline (because I do not), and yet always try to ‘improve’ myself by saying I’ll write every day or paint every day or draw every day and quite literally never manage it – I clearly need to make such a plan again.
Read: poetry every day (ok, this is so doable – I do literally read every day, and poems are mostly very short!)
Write: poetry every day. (again, probably doable, see above re: length of poems). Notice I did not say write ‘good’ poetry.
I was listening to a podcast where poets Saeed Jones (who I’m familiar with) and Rachel Zucker (unknown to me) are discussing Saeed’s poetry collection & memoir. My brain & my heart both felt like connections were made that had never existed before in either of them. And that is exactly what I’m trying to build into my life and my future. More light, more connection, evolution.
I was going to share the poem I wrote, but I think I need this to be about the process, not the product, for the moment.
So please -share a favorite poem or poet or poetry collection. I will need something to feed the machine.
I spent so many years in school, and loved it. I first wrote because they told me to. It turned out I could do it well by their standards, and so I liked doing it. But I liked a lot of other things – math, reading, drawing, gymnastics, singing.
So much of my writing has been about receiving praise from other people (mostly my teachers). The writing became about the praise. Which is why I couldn’t sustain that “help you with your money” website I started – because no one was telling me it was good and helpful. And I told myself that it wasn’t the writing I wanted to do but the helping – that what was missing was the one-on-one interaction. Which wasn’t a lie, but it also isn’t the truth. I felt like no one saw it and no one told me it was good and I was smart and kind and also a hero and a great writer. So I lost all interest in the project – in an idea had consumed me for weeks. But what had consumed me was the idea of a lot of people praising me for how helpful I was, not the doing of it. Ego, much?
Now I wonder if I’d have been as good a painter/ artist (for instance) as I am a writer if school/ anyone had spent as much time praising me for it and teaching me to hone that craft. I’m a decent painter & sketcher, and I get better the more I do it (true of most things! For most people!). And I derive at least as much pleasure from it as I ever did from writing – with a lot less need for outside validation. Not because I want to be an amazing painter – but it seems clear we all have many parts we let atrophy for lack of sunlight.
With painting, I focus on the process and therefore am less invested in the outcome, which means I end doing a better job. Or something. But with writing I can be happy as hell with the product but still not care about it if no one else is reading it.
I am a thinker, an over-thinker, honestly – and writing is really the part of school that best matches up with that tendency/ skill. And writing does clarify thinking for me, both emotional and intellectual topics (false binary!). But I don’t think it’s the writing itself that I like, or that attracts me. It’s the deep thinking about whatever topic that appeals and excites, not the writing process or the product. Writing being an effective medium for sharing thoughts is why I like it, not because I think writing is something I should be doing. Maybe those aren’t actually different things, but they feel different.
Lidia Yuknavitch says that the truth exists but using words to try to describe the truth can only be fiction – that feels like a part of it. But you can get to the truth of an idea, if not a life or an experience – with words. Ideas are quite literally only words, they can’t exist without the language to describe them, whereas all manner of other things exist outside language entirely. And that’s what excites me most. But it is the pursuit of the idea that can motivate me, not the writing that comes from that. Or maybe that’s why I want/ need that praise/ interaction? Because I can’t know if I’ve translated the idea well enough until someone else has read it and told me they understand? I don’t know maybe this whole thing is just a circle.
It’s true that writing essays about money advice really is useless if no one reads them – but quitting after five essays and two weeks or whatever is hardly a fair chance given.
So… I’m a much better writer than painter. And journal writing is an important part of my life and growth as a person. But it’s suddenly obvious that the other writing in my life is just performance. Writing is certainly the way I figure things out for myself, but public righting is about how others react to it, not how I feel about it myself. Which may be why I don’t do it much while still thinking I should be doing it and being disappointed in myself for not doing it more.
But maybe I’m only think I should be a writer because someone told me early on that I was, and I believed them. What if they’d told me I was a good artist instead? Who would I be?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. Much like I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t read voraciously. Any class that required writing – Reading, English, any humanities class – I did well in. I can structure an argument, I can write a story, I used to think my poems were deep and meaningful (those junior high school poems, ouch!). I was taking a class in how retirement IRAs work and I joked that my earnings would be royalties from my books. I got a bachelor’s degree in English and swore I’d write the defining thesis of the 21st century. I’ve written book reviews for (very little) money. I’ve edited several (self-published) books. I’ve written some short stories and 12,000 words on a middle-grade novel I haven’t finished. I write (very irregularly) on this blog.
So when I quit my job and ran away, one of the things I meant to do was get on that whole writing thing. I’d have all that free time – I’d totally finish that novel, write up all those cool ideas for feminist magazines and pop-culture websites. At a minimum, I’d make hardly any money generating crappy content for the endless machine that is the internet. I bought a Writers Almanac and planned to pitch and write stories for various outlets until someone accepted one.
Maybe y’all didn’t notice, but… none of that happened. I wrote almost nothing on the novel. I wrote in my journal a lot, and a few blog posts, but not much else. I applied and tested for a few writing/editing jobs and got none of them. I didn’t pitch a single essay to a single website.
I have a million reasons/ excuses for why that is – some more valid than others – but ultimately I just… didn’t.
So the real question is: Do I want to write, or do I just want to think of myself as a writer?
Well, I really can’t stand the idea that my whole life I’ve basically been a fraud, pretending to be someone who would be a writer “if only I had the time.” So I guess I better get on that shit.
After being called on my bullshit excuses by my best friend (whose job it is to do that for me), I’ve decided that what I have to do – if I want to make this fantasy of writing a reality – is hack my writing process. I follow dozens of writers and editors on Twitter and they are constantly talking about the processes that work for them, with lots of options for me to choose from. So the next step is PUTTING SOME OF THOSE IN PLACE! Trying them out, see what works. Recognize the excuses for what they are and not allowing them to stand unchallenged. My biggest (mental, self-imposed) hurdles are as follows.
Problem 1: I am lazy. Please don’t try to tell me I’m not. Y’all have no idea how much free time I spend doing stupid shit – in addition to all the free time I spend doing good things like reading and crocheting and stuff. I.AM. LAZY. Not up for discussion.
Rule to Solve Problem 1: Stare that bitch right in the face. Stop accepting my own lame excuses. Let my friends hold me accountable. I’m usually opposed to people hassling me about stuff, but I’m putting this out there for all of you (if you’re interested). Go ahead and ask me if I’ve done any writing lately. I’m officially committing to writing frequently and regularly, and I may need help sticking to it.
Problem 2: Focusing the brain on writing. Writing requires that I harness most/ all of the simultaneous trains of thought in my head to focus on this one thing with a minimum of tangents. I don’t know if everyone else’s brain works like this, but there are at least four things happening in my head every minute I’m awake. This is why I insist on listening to music while at work, because it keeps one of them happy. Chatting with people while working is also good, so two tracks are occupied and work is likely to go well. In order for the serious writing to happen – and for me to stick to it – I can’t be distracted by looking up that book I wanted to reference, or thinking about how I first heard this song on vacation, or getting angry at the current state of the world.
Rule to Solve Problem 2: I made a playlist with mostly instrumentals and songs in languages I do not speak. Turn off the internet if I’m using my laptop. Make notes on research TO BE DONE LATER. Put phone out of reach with all social media notifications turned off. Stay off Twitter until after the writing is done.
Problem 3: I get lots of ideas (those fucking trains never stop running, people) but don’t do anything with them.
Rule to Solve Problem 3: WRITE THEM DOWN IMMEDIATELY. The kernel of a new idea is tough to hold onto, even if you aren’t past 40 and losing the sharpness of your memory. They won’t all be winners, but I’ll never know if I can’t remember any of them. Jot down those ideas when they come. Develop them – soon – instead of just thinking about them while watching TV.
Problem 4: Editing brain and writing brain are very different. Editing is much easier, it actually benefits from all those tracks in my head. And it’s basically just reading and getting to feel like I’m smart because I can see the mistakes and fix them, so that’s two things that make me happy. But I can’t edit a blank page (that is one of those things writers and editors are always saying). So as soon as I do have something written, I’m quite happy to jump to the editing process, which derails the writing process. The idea that all writing needs to be published/ posted goes right along with this, and so I prioritize editing the words instead of making the words. But I know I can edit and post blogs, that is not a skill I need to work on or a process I need to improve.
Rule to Solve Problem 4: FOCUS ON THE WRITING. Don’t fix the typos. Ignore the editing and posting – at least for now. Of course as I write this current thing here – clearly intended to be posted on my blog – I realize I have to ignore it in order for anyone to read this. The world is full of contradictions.
Last weekend I tried all of these rules. I made a writing playlist. I stopped getting on Twitter at breakfast. I re-read books that inspired me. And I wrote more than 2000 words, made three or four notes on other ideas I wanted to explore, even dictated notes into my phone while I was out walking. It’s clear that I can do this. Whether or not anyone but my friends wants to read any of it IS NOT THE POINT OF WRITING IT. That is publishing.
I’ve forgiven a lot of people for a lot of things. I’ve forgiven shitty ex-boyfriends for how they treated me, and myself for putting up with it. I’ve forgiven my parents for letting me down in really important ways. Mean comments, big and small lies, money borrowed and never paid back, unkindness galore. I thought I was pretty good at it, here in these later years of my life. But there’s this one friend I used to have.
In a life of mostly good things and happiness, this is probably the most hurtful thing I experienced – which I acknowledge makes me a pretty lucky bitch, no question. But pain is not measured on a relative scale. Pain is pain, and this one was/is the worst one I can remember. Or at least the one that has refused to go away, while others have faded to something else – regret or remorse or just sadness.
I used to have this friend. One of my closest, in a life where I have a lot of true friends, but not that many people I am so open with. A life where I keep friends for a long time and am still friends with most of my ex-boyfriends.
I’m not sure what made this one worse then everything else. I have experienced outright rejection before, but never from someone so close and so trusted. I’ve had people lie about me before, but not so painfully or for such an unnecessary and ineffectual reason. I’ve had people break trust with me before, but never so cavalierly and without provocation. I’ve lost people before, but never so unexpectedly or deliberately.
I don’t know why this one has stuck with me for so long. Well, that’s not really true. I know why, but I don’t know why it took me so long to do something about it.
It’s still here because I could not forgive them.
Could not stop wanting the situation to be something other than what it was. I probably spent a year in absolute denial – just could not believe the facts. Then I spent quite a few years in hurt anger, which moved into just plain anger and stayed there for a long, long time. I finally got to sadness, but I couldn’t let it go.
Because I used to have this really good friend, and I have not been able forgive them. I was waiting for an apology or an explanation or an alternate reality to show up and wipe it all away.
I can’t even say that I stopped caring about them in all this time, because I never did. I can only assume that this whole episode is firmly in the past for them, while it shows up in my dreams as if it just happened a few months ago.
It showed up again just a few days ago. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the whole situation. Not what happened more than 10 years ago, but what is happening right now. How I’m still wishing the situation was different. And finally, finally, I think I’m ready to do the one thing I actually CAN and MUST do, if I want this situation to be different.
I have to forgive them.
I’ve spent decades looking hard at the ugliness and anger and pain and stupidity within myself, trying to live on the outside like I feel on the inside. Trying to lead with kindness and understanding and clear-eyed intention. To be aware of the consequences of my actions and the example I set for my son and the rest of the human race that has to interact with me. But there’s this one thing that’s been around for way too long that I have not been able to root out.
From Dad, I learned that everyone is worthy of respect. No one is less-than.
I learned that violence is never the answer, and never to be tolerated.
I learned the joys of wandering road trips. Any road/trail is worth exploring at least once, and in the meantime you are building a map of your surroundings. You’ll always be able to find your way home.
Reading is always a good thing. If you have $5, spend it on a book.
Being alone is okay. Good, even.
Never admit to being vulnerable.
Never show weakness.
If you tell a lie enough times, you’ll start to believe it.
So much I learned in opposition to what he (and my mother) did.
Let your children be children.
Talk to them.
Hug them & tell them you love them until they are sick of hearing it and then tell them some more.
Let them make their own choices (in a SAFE environment) and let them learn from their mistakes.
Tell the truth.
Take care of yourself and do not expect others to take care of you (because they might not, and then where will you be?).
Don’t count on anyone.
I don’t wish I had different parents. I don’t know how to do that. They were my PARENTS. I wish they had been better parents – better people, really. Better in the sense that they wanted to be good people and/or good parents and worked at it, or even thought about it more. Well, I think maybe Dad thought about it, but thinking is not doing – and who got that tendency in spades? Mom was not a doer, and I don’t have evidence that she was much of a thinker, either.
But wishing they were someone else is like wishing to sweep away MY ENTIRE EXISTENCE. How could I be happy now and then wish for that?
I watch Facebook as people I know talk about their dads, change their profile pics, gush about how wonderful they are, say how much they miss them. I watch those who have complicated relationships with their fathers try to be honest while still honoring them. I respect that. Certainly more than the ‘perfection is my dad’ idea. Tara has a fantastic blog post about how lucky she is and what she learned from her dad (which is what sent me to writing this) and, without pretending he’s perfect, she talks about how lucky she was in the Dad lottery – a big winner, indeed.
I am not a winner. If it’s a contest, I guess I’m a loser. My dad chose distance over connection, again and again. And now he’s really gone, and my life is hardly different than it was when he was alive. I lost him long before he died.
Because of my dad’s choices (and my mother’s acquiescence), I have almost no connection with an extended family that could have helped me (and the rest of my family) weather the windstorm that started as gusts and ended as something like a hurricane – blowing Susan far, far away and slowly scattering the rest of us like debris, with no relation to its origin. I now feel like I actually know some of those aunts and uncles and cousins – but it’s much too late to be rescued by them.
What bonds my siblings and I have now are almost entirely of our own making – other than the early encouragement to be kind to one another. We were (or at least, I was) rarely told to ‘be more like your sister’ or allowed to exclude each other from our activities. But my parents did nothing to try to keep this family together once we started leaving. No. Thing.
Susan has worked to make sure that Mom stays connected, and I have worked to make sure that Laurie stays connected. I think Susan and I have not had to work very hard to stay connected, once I visited her in Montana that first time (what would have happened if she’d been in Texas or something? I shudder to think). We both wanted it, we both just took it as normal – because, hello, it is pretty normal to want to know what the fuck’s going on in your sister’s life. That’s pretty much what our family is built on right now – Susie & I staying close. If I stopped talking to her (which I cannot currently envision) then I would lose all touch with Mom. And she would likely lose touch with Laurie (or not, I’m hardly a psychic). Such a small thing. Such a powerful thing.
Most people just don’t understand – and I’m happy for them. Some people do, and I am incredibly grateful for them.
There are fathers and families much worse than mine out there, and I wish their children peace and the courage to move beyond them. It can be done. It’s being done every day by far more people than we like to imagine. Love is the only house big enough for all the pain.