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On Getting Real

Everyone says a writer needs to be vulnerable with her readers–even if she’s making up a story. In fact, she should feel a little nervous about what she puts on the page if it means she’s telling the truth.

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On the other hand, we live in a culture where people share stuff that may titillate but doesn’t necessarily inspire others or elevate the conversation. And then there’s the (I believe) competing idea of professionalism. Do we really want to get deep with the authors we admire, or do we want a little distance? (I, for one, do not care about Graham Greene’s favorite beverage).

Still, I have to admit I consume vulnerable writing like I eat candy corn, which is to say, once I get started I can’t stop.

I’ve been following Penelope Trunk’s writing for years, and she seems like an emotional train wreck. I don’t say this to be hateful. She says it herself. She overshares and it often gets on my nerves, so I go long seasons of cutting her out of my life. But I always come back. Being emotionally vulnerable in your writing may not make others respect you, but it does make for good reading.

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So I’ll share what I thought I wouldn’t: an agent turned down my manuscript last week. She included a personal note that felt like a backhanded compliment, but it stung and made me feel like a creative imposter. I didn’t know if I should say anything about it because what if that isn’t professional? But if Penelope can talk to the internet about being incompetent at life, I guess I can admit this.

Honestly, I don’t feel better now, but maybe it’s not about me, anyway.

Going Input-Free or How to Stay Creative and Sane

In an earlier post, I wrote about how I’m intentional about filling my creative well during the day, whether by noticing visual art at my local coffee shop, listening to podcasts on interesting topics, or reading a few pages of a novel before bed. It’s creative input, and it helps me stay connected to right-brain pursuits.

But, increasingly, I need “no input” time, too–protected chunks of the day (however brief) to hear myself think. These are moments when I’m not listening to, or reading, anything. I’m purposely not taking in new data.

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It’s hard to find these no input minutes in our modern world, not just because “news” and trivia are the white noise in our public spaces, but also because we’re addicted to looking stuff up on our mobile devices. We stuff our brains with junk info–beyond its capacity–all the time.

Author, runner, and NPR show host Peter Sagal writes about preserving space in his day for no input. He says if he didn’t run without listening to music, he would have no time  when he wasn’t taking in data. This is crazy-making and has the potential to reduce productivity and peace. So, for a few minutes a day, he runs in silence. He lets his brain chew the food it’s already trying to digest instead of gorging it with more, more, more.

I’ve started keeping track of the times I could be going input-free but am choosing not to. I’m asking myself why I reach for my phone when I’m unable to process all that’s being hurdled at me. I’m taking a moment or two, several times a day, to mull over what’s already on my mind. I think it’s helping lower my anxiety.

At the very least, it’s helping me remember my limits.

 

Art in the Second Half of Life

Some of the pros of pursuing a creative field in my forties are that

  • I feel calmer, braver, and less neurotic than I did when I was younger.
  • I’ve mostly raised my kids, so I don’t have Mom Guilt when I take time away from them to get better at my craft.
  • I’m more disciplined with my time because, honestly, there are fewer things in my life that feel like interesting distractions (with the possible exception of podcasts on unsolved murders).
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But there are cons, too.

  • I feel rushed, like I’m always on the verge of running out of time. It’s hard not to compare myself to twenty or thirty-somethings who are doing all the things I’m doing, but sooner, so the odds of success seem ever in their favor.
  • I get mentally exhausted sooner than I did in my twenties, and I wonder if my ideas are “safer” because of this mellow(er) decade.
  • I’m physically tired.
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In order to keep going, I have to remind myself that

  • I was meant to find this path at this time (I believe God directs our lives more than we realize).
  • My ideas are probably less wild but truer than if I’d written them down earlier. This is because I’ve lived more. I’ve sat in the shadows with people. I’ve traveled the world. This has to count for something.
  • My life is going to pass whether I pursue writing or not. Since there’s no slowing down the passage of time, I might as well spend some of it doing what I love.

Are you thinking of creating art in the second half of your life? If you need a little encouragement, check out these women who got published after the age of 40. 

Facing Silence

Last night I turned the last page of a book I’d been putting off finishing. I told myself I wasn’t making progress on it because I’m too busy, but the truth is that I was nervous it was going to wreck me. I’d heard a lot about Shusaku Endo’s Silence. My sister had read it. So had two of my kids.

Everyone I talked to said, “Just be in a good place when you read it.”

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I’m not in a particularly good place right now, but I felt this urge (sense of duty?) to finish it, for some reason. Maybe because my motto for my 40’s is: Don’t wait until you feel like doing [insert difficult, worthwhile thing] because you might not ever feel like it, and then what have you got?

I could edit this, but I won’t.

Now I’m on the other side of Silence, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Was it painful to read? Yes. Do I have a lump in my throat that I cannot currently swallow, even after three cups of coffee? Yes. Am I glad I pressed into the discomfort and questions and scenes of torture to get to the beauty? Emphatically, yes.

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I feel like this is a lesson–that it means something on a grander scale–but it’s too soon to tell. For now, I suspect it’s just one more example of how it’s better to face things than to avoid them. Even if what you’re avoiding is a heavy book.

Winning, Losing, and Making a Difference

My kids are taking a government class at their educational co-op. They each ran for a different class office as part of a unit on the electoral process.

Two of them campaigned, which felt a little awkward because they were running against good friends. My middle teen hardly tried at all because he found out he was running against his closest friend (not by choice), and he was tempted to drop out of the race altogether.

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Elections were yesterday. All of my kids won their offices, and not by slim margins. Their reactions to their victories were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, they couldn’t help feeling the rush of success, the satisfaction of a return on their efforts. On the other hand, they felt downright blue because the people they beat were visibly dejected.

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My husband and I haven’t taught our kids to view life through the “everyone gets a trophy” mindset. They regularly engage in activities that require them to compete against themselves and others. They play sports where, after all, the point is to win.

Still, they couldn’t help wondering if their friendships would be the same the day after the election. And, in the end, friendships are more important to them than winning.

In the writing world, authors are expected to market themselves. Many of us balk at the idea because it feels like we’re saying, “I know you only have so much time, and there are millions of books to read. But you should read my book and not that one over there.” Feels like a campaign, kind of. Vote for me, not that guy. And it rubs some of us the wrong way.

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But I have to remind myself that, really, marketing it ISN’T like an election. Elections are about scarcity (there’s one position and many people want to fill it). While it’s true that there ARE a lot of people writing, there are lots of people reading, too. Marketing, then, is really about finding your tribe and offering them something that will benefit them. If I can think like that, I can move forward with joy.

In the meantime, I remind my kids that people voted them into office for a reason. They have an opportunity to be wise, kind, and fair in their dealings. They can make important decisions. It’s not a bad thing to win, sometimes, because it means you have a chance to do good for others.

Which is how I want to use my words: to do something good for others.

Writing While Furious

There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and I find myself as susceptible as the next person to the slow burn of muted rage. And that’s just the stuff that has nothing to do with me. Factor in the mundane irritations, the occasional sleepless nights due to I-still-don’t-actually-know-what, the To-Do list that will not resolve itself, and I could stay ticked if I let myself.

Anger is an emotion I hate. I don’t feel energized by it the way some people do. To me, it’s nothing but pure body and soul malaise. It yanks my inner life into slow motion while morphing my external life into a pathetic series of jerkily completed tasks.

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One of the differences between writing for fun and turning pro is that you’ve decided you’ll do it when you feel inspired and calm–and when you feel awful. If I want to turn pro (and I do) it means I need a way to harness my occasional anger into creative energy until it burns away. Otherwise, it will become one more invitation not to move forward in my career.

This blog post isn’t how about to do that, because I haven’t figured it out yet (unless you count typing with ferocity). This is more of a personal memo, an item that needs to move to the top of my To-Do list for the foreseeable future. I have longterm ways of putting my anger into perspective, of giving my Big Scary Feels to God. I just need a short-term way to move forward creatively when the rage is still fresh and hot.

 

The Care and Feeding of Art

I have a full life, like most everyone else. There’s plenty to do in a given hour, stuff that doesn’t feel particularly interesting or thought-provoking but has to get done. Well and good, but I need to feed my mind in order to create my best work, even when I don’t have time to “indulge” in things that aren’t making money or managing my family’s lives.

One way I keep my head full of stories is to listen to podcasts on subjects I’m interested in. I can usually do this while I’m running or unloading the dishwasher, so it feels like multitasking. It’s fertilizer for my thought life and doesn’t cost me extra time (or money).

Another way is to read a few pages of a novel before bed (and when I say a few pages, it’s sometimes two before I sink into oblivion). I’m always working through someone else’s book, even when I’m writing my own. I used to wonder if reading while writing would cause me to plagiarise another author’s ideas. As far as I can tell, that’s a groundless fear. If anything, reading someone else’s work reminds me to use my own voice and stay true to my vision.

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Yet another way to stoke my thought life is to notice the artwork on the walls of a favorite coffee shop. I imagine what an artist was thinking as she sketched half of a face in charcoal. Before I know it, I have the vaguest glimmer of a scene in the back of my mind. Maybe I won’t use it right away, but it’ll be there waiting for me if I need it.

Feeding my mind is something I used to believe would happen in my spare time. Now I know I have to work it into my day in order to stay creative.

What about you? How do you feed your mind and stay inspired?

 

On Getting Over Creative Angst

Creatives have to take their art seriously, or no one else will. If what we’re making/writing/singing isn’t important enough to take it seriously, then why not just get the laundry done and stop messing around? After all, we’re all grown-ups here.

The irony is that taking our art too seriously also ensures that no one else will. Plus, it will be boring and un-fun to create, and we will wonder why we started all of this mess in the first place.

The trick is to take the work seriously enough that we give it space in our lives, that we bleed and sweat for it if that’s what it takes, but not so seriously that we become miserable people who can’t tell a good joke. Because art, like life, is worth working for, but it also needs a little levity to keep it from becoming insufferable.

A good way to keep from taking our art (and life) too seriously is to gain a little perspective. I don’t know how you recalibrate when you’re feeling stuck or stuck-up or struck down, but I just saw this photo my husband took in West Africa, and, yeah that did it for me.

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I get to write because I have food to eat, clothes to wear, and I live in relative safety. I get to create. It’s a wonderful, luxurious privilege I did nothing to deserve. This is what I will tell myself as I sit down to edit my manuscript.

Accidentally On Purpose

I started running last year. It was new and hard, and I was 39. I got into a routine, raced some 10K’s and a one-mile dash that made me think my heart had exploded. Running changed my perception of my body and what it could do. It made me happier, more confident. My running momentum built with each month, and I kept at it until I turned 40. I ran for three weeks after that, and then…

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Me (right) with my two sisters before a 10K in Richmond, VA

…I lost my mojo and couldn’t figure out how to get it back. I let the giant running snowball melt and evaporate.

It’s that I wrote another novel this year, I told myself, and started a new job, plus all my kids were in high school, and I can only focus on so many things. I’d see updates on my runner friends’ progress, and I’d think, I’ll get back to that someday, and if I don’t, at least I know I can do it if I want to.

But my moods.

My middle son likes to jump into things without preparing for catastrophe. He is the anti-me in this way. Life has rewarded him with some prizes for his headlong behavior as well as some serious bruises. When he told me he wanted to run a Monster Dash 5K in two weeks, I said, you haven’t trained. He said, I didn’t train last year and I won my category. I wish you’d do it with me, he said.

I stared at him.

But then I thought, maybe I should do it. Even though I haven’t run in six months, and I’d only have two weeks to prepare, and I know enough about running to know this isn’t an adequate amount of time.

Because I also know that sometimes you have to forget the plan. You have to go for it.

I completed my second three-miler today, and I didn’t have to stop. I didn’t feel like death, though my legs hurt like a son of a gun. I’m euphoric because I accidentally started running again.

Sometimes, it takes a kick in the pants or a serendipitous moment (or a middle kid) to get me back on track. Sometimes that’s better than any plan I could have come up with.

 

A Soft Answer

So much of life is about getting down to business, doing the work, not waiting for inspiration in order to accomplish tasks, etc, etc. This is true in our jobs and in our parenting.

Also? Our creative pursuits won’t find expression if we don’t commit to them. We know we have to Just Do It.

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But sometimes you “need” to do something, and you feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing it–as in you actually cannot make yourself start the thing in the first place. Even though you know the sinking feeling is only your weak mind keeping you from being disciplined. It’s Resistance, you tell yourself, as if naming it will pull out its eye teeth or something.

I’m a Christian, not a Buddhist. But I like what this guy has to say about gently accomplishing the thing you really want to get done in a day. Just that thing and nothing more. Just that thing, while breathing and letting yourself find joy in the moment you’re doing it. Just that thing, while not being driven by anxiety and dread.

So will I work on novel edits today? Will I smile at Resistance instead of trying to trick or outrun it?

Could be. Yeah, maybe I will.

 

*photo by my creative, procrastinating son