On Curated Truth and Fake Vulnerability

Still over here thinking about vulnerability that helps connect us with others.

And now, after reading this article, I’m wondering about fake vulnerability–the kind that looks brave but is actually crafted and careful like those ridiculous #nofilter Instagram pics people love to post (No, really, she woke up like this).

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The first step to creating genuine connection with others is to be honest about where you’re coming from. Story: I just joined Twitter, and I wrestled with what to put in my bio. I didn’t want to say too much (or, Lord help me, use emojis), but I knew I needed to let people know a few true things. That way, if they aren’t interested in what I’m writing/thinking about, they can move on. No harm, no foul.

So I said I’m a Christian because that’s the realest thing about me. I’m aware putting that out there may cause some people to turn away immediately. I’m aware they might assume I’m writing “Christian fiction” when I’m actually trying to do something different.

I imagine most people want you to be upfront with them, though. They don’t want to feel like you’ve Trojan horse-d your viewpoint into their consciousness. If they don’t agree with what you’re saying, fine and good. At least you’ve been honest.

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The difference between real and fake vulnerability is…the truth. If someone sticks around after they know what you’re really about, guess what? You’re in a better position to say the things you really mean–and, in the end, maybe even help someone.

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.

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.

 

On Surviving ‘Big Opportunities’

In two days, I’ll attend a writer’s conference at a swanky hotel. My carry-on will contain professional clothes (okay, a few Stitch Fix mix ‘n matches). I will wear poppy-colored lipstick and have too many business cards in my purse. I will try to look bright-eyed and confident, but also cool and not too eager because gross.

I will try not to think about myself and my writing too much, try to remember that this kind of event is about reaching out to others with no strings attached. Let good things just happen, man. Think about how you can be helpful. Be the first to go in for a handshake.

Shudder.

The whir in the back of my head will be: I wonder what’s going to happen. What VIP will I meet that could change my future plans? Do I belong here? I don’t. No, wait, I do. But not really. But, yes. Yes, I do. I will lick my front teeth to make sure none of the poppy-colored lipstick is smeared on them. I will open my eyes extra-wide (but not crazy wide!) behind my glasses when people smile at me because I’m 40, and my eyelids are starting to sag even when I’m not tired. Even when I’m nervous and on sensory overload.

And then I will remember how fortunate I am to be here. I will think about the beggar kids that lived outside my apartment in India for three years, those pink warts on their toast-colored hands, the broken-off front teeth. I will think about the level of privilege this conference represents, and how I did nothing to deserve it.

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And that will set me right for a few minutes out of every hour until I reach my hotel room at the end of the day. There I will let my face sag. I will switch on the television to see what cable looks like after all these years. Then I’ll make decaf in the nasty little pot on the desk. I will text my husband and ask him about our three teenagers–the ones I miss when they’ve been out of my sight for more than eight hours.

I’ll thank God for seeing me this far.

I’ll remember who I am.

Return to Sender

An old lady looks back on her life as she sits in my living room and tells me things no one else knows. She offers tinted stories and looks hard in my eyes to see if I suspect hers aren’t the only shades.

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She doesn’t speak to her daughter, she says, because

the girl doesn’t love her,

won’t help with anything.

She wishes, in fact, she didn’t have kids.

It isn’t safe to answer, so I say nothing because she cries as she paints her life for me, and old woman tears are the saddest.

Then I hear from her daughter, the one who

never visits,

never calls.

And her side is black and blue (and then it’s my turn to cry).

How many mistakes do a mother and daughter get before they break what they borrowed?

Why can some patch up ragged holes, while others lie bleeding (but never quite dead)?

I want to return these stories, but they belong to me now.

So this morning I hug my teenaged daughter while she crunches cereal, and I try to send into her all the tender things I hope she’ll

remember–

and I pray for grace.

The Novelist

If everything is story (and I believe it is), how do we make sense of the thousands of narratives we encounter?

When my hairstylist tells me about a teacher she knows whose son was killed in a school shooting, that’s a story. But what does it mean?

How I explain stories to myself reveals a lot about me. What you do with the stories in your world says something about you, too.

To wit:

Are we all living in a giant, super-complex novel with thousands of tiny subplots? Are all the little stories part of one grand narrative? Or are they disconnected snippets that lead to nowhere?

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If they’re connected, then someone, somewhere, is the Novelist, and we are mere characters. Which means, of course, that while our lives feel extremely important to us, they can’t be the Ultimate Meaning of the Universe. They are part of a bigger story.

Furthermore, if there is a Novelist writing our lives, we characters won’t understand or accept everything that goes down in our worlds because we aren’t as in charge as we’d like to believe. Which sounds positively unAmerican, I know.

Of course, if our stories are disconnected and random, they only have the meaning we assign to them–nothing more.

What say you?

Do you chafe at the idea that Someone might be writing your story? Your neighbor’s story? If there is a Novelist, are we characters responsible for what we do? Are we to blame when we do bad things?

Do you blame characters in the books you read?

 

 

 

Everything is Story

The Wangs aren’t the kind of people you wave to as you pass their house on the way to yours. Not because you don’t want to wave, but because they turn their backs when you try to make eye contact. They put orange cones at the edge of their driveway, and after they mow their lawn, they use salad tongs to pick up clumps of grass.

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Tonight there are so many police cars and ambulances in front of their perfect yard that we collect on the front porch and squint. The neighbors across the street do the same thing, and we end up congregating.

Mr. Wang was a Taiwanese refugee a long time ago, someone says, but I think they mean immigrant. He got a job with a big factory in town and did pretty well. He and his wife don’t talk to people in the neighborhood except to the lady across the street. They have brilliant kids who didn’t know to roller skate when they were little. They’re grown up and living in California now. One became a doctor, maybe? Anyway, they’re smart.

Mr. Wang had, has? cancer. He’s small to begin with, but now he weighs 98 lbs, a lady says. He still worked in his yard up until two days ago, though he started sitting on a low seat under the Japanese maple a lot and wore a surgical mask.

My husband walks down to the Wangs’ house, though neither one of us has ever so much as said hello to them.

EMT’s carry a gurney out of the house, a tiny shrouded body on it. We can’t tell if the face is covered from where we stand. Someone says he’s gone already. But then the ambulance turns on its siren, and we figure they wouldn’t do that if he was already dead, would they?

When my husband returns, he tells us Mr. Wang had died, that the emergency people broke his sternum trying to get him to breathe again. His chest caves in at a steep angle, but he’s alive, for now.

I helped Mrs. Wang into the ambulance, he says.

This morning, one of the neighbors from last night’s huddle tells us Mr. Wang died again at midnight, but not before he became responsive in the hospital. That’s what he said: became responsive. We imagine him grasping his wife’s hand, telling her it’s okay, to let him go. But we don’t know anything for sure. Or at all, really.

Mrs. Wang is out in her yard exactly five and a half hours after her husband died. It’s trash day, and she moves her cans to the end of the street so the trash man can do his work without walking on her driveway. Then she gets out the salad tongs and cleans up her grass.

And I can’t help but wish I’d said hello before.

 

 

 

Are You A School Shooter? Am I?

The novel I’m working on involves a school shooting. As I wrap up the book, I find myself gloomy and depressed, and it takes me forever to figure out why.

Then I do.

I’ve immersed myself in a dark fictional world every day for the last several months. What’s worse, it isn’t a dystopian, that’ll-never-really-happen world. It’s a turn-on-the-news-for-the-latest-incident kind of place.

I educate my kids at home–partly because we lived abroad for a chunk of their childhoods, and it was easier to take school with us where ever we happened to be–but I have lots of friends with kids in public schools. My husband teaches in one. So do both of my parents.

School shootings affect me, too.

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One of the big themes in my book is whether nature or nurture has a bigger impact on who people become. Can we pass on certain violent traits to our kids? How can we know if we’re parenting a potential monster? Are there signs? Whose fault is it when a teenager does something horrific?

I’m a Christian. While I don’t write stereotypical Christian fiction, God figures in my fictional worlds because he looms large in MY world. When I open my Bible, I read the story of a broken, pain-soaked world. I see people hurting each other, shaking their fists at the sky while justifying their actions.

I believe everyone, including myself, is fundamentally messed up and in need of rescuing.

Still, what makes some people kill and not others?

These are some of the questions I’m asking. No wonder I’ve been feeling heavy.