Inspiration during Social Isolation

Everyone is staying inside here in Washington, as in many other places around the world. Whether you like it or not, we’ve all been forced to slow down in one way or another. Perhaps this is an opportunity to go inward and become reflective. I’ve been wanting to write a poem, but for *some reason* I can’t get the words right. I’ve made my peace with this. Now’s not the time to be judgmental or harsh. It’s a good time to step back and let go.

So instead, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a very beautiful poem by Mary Oliver called “At Loxahatchie” (from her book Dream Work). What can you loosen your grip on today?

the water whispered: And now, like us,
you are a million years old.

But at the same time
the enormous and waxy flowers

of the shrubs around me, whose names
I did not know,
were nodding in the wind and sighing
Be born! And I knew

whatever my place in this garden
it was not to be what I had always been–
the gardener.
Everywhere the reptiles thrashed

while birds exploded into heavenly
hymns of rough song and the vultures
drifted like black angels and clearly nothing
needed to be saved.

I’m a Fraud

Far and away, the most important thing I learned in law school had very little to do with law. In a career-development seminar, my then-professor said:

“You must come to terms with feeling like a fraud. Every lawyer is a fraud.”

He wasn’t casting aspersions on the practice of law; he was talking about how no single person can ever hope to know everything about the law. It’s too voluminous, too complicated. And it’s always changing. Obviously, this advice doesn’t just apply to lawyers. In life, there’s so much you don’t know, and can’t know. This holds true for any given profession or any undertaking you might pursue.

Let me tell you, nothing makes you feel more fraudulent than being a self-employed writer. You might be thinking, “What am I doing? I don’t deserve this! I don’t even have a job description! Where’s my cubicle, anyway. . .?”

Cocktail parties become more difficult. Casual conversations become interrogations. My friends from law school, distant relatives – they all want to know: “how’s business?” It can be hard to stand tall in that environment, to resist the urge to make excuses or minimize what you do. It’s tempting to just crawl under the table with a bowl of pretzels and admit defeat. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, and if you’re self-employed, there’s a lot of pressure (mostly internal) to explain yourself. What makes you so different? Why do you deserve this? What do you know that I don’t?

There’s a cult of secrecy around this: Don’t let anyone in on the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing. They’ll expose you. They will let everyone in on the fact that you don’t deserve your success. They’ll tell everyone the truth: it was just a fluke. You just got lucky. Fortunately, it’s not true.

As with many things, you’ll find that there are less people out to get you than you think. I’m not saying they don’t exist- but usually we’re our own worst enemy. Instead of everyone thinking about what a phony you are, they are inside their own minds hoping that you aren’t noticing how fake they are.

You don’t need to fake it.
Embrace the fraud in you. Own what you don’t know. Take responsibility for it; it’s okay if you don’t know everything. Start being honest with yourself first. Life itself is uncertainty, and there’s no shame in that.

Note that this doesn’t translate to “have low self-esteem.” You can still have self-confidence, even when you don’t know what you’re doing! (And if you’re an existentialist, how does anyone really know anything, anyway?) Instead of focusing on proving to others you aren’t a fraud, practice self-awareness. Embrace what you don’t know, embrace the uncertainty in life, embrace the fact that we all only get one chance at life and one go-round will not make you an expert. Once you start to honestly examine your feelings of insecurity—once you recognize those things about you that are fraudulent—I guarantee you will find something genuine beneath it.

This is your core. This is you. It is the realest, most authentic thing there is.

11 Rules for Writing

Inspired by the Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.

  1. Write every day, no matter what. When you don’t write, write the next day.
  2. Fill your life with inspiration, and know that everything is inspiration. Keep it close to you.
  3. Write with bravery and confidence (write what you want and how you want). Don’t stop for anyone.
  4. Write happily, even though writing is work, it is also joyful. Work with pleasure only.
  5. Have a space set aside for writing, but don’t be bound to it. Writing is everywhere.
  6. Write the Truth, not the facts. Authenticity is everything.
  7. Be precise.
  8. Finish one story before beginning another. But horde story ideas like gold.
  9. Don’t be afraid of anything, nothing is off limits. Don’t censor, but do write spaciously, leaving room for symbolism and metaphor.
  10. Relaxing is invaluable. Use your unconscious mind, do things that appear mindless to find solutions when stuck.
  11. Don’t focus on finishing, just take it one day at a time. That’s how work gets finished.

Antidote for Rejection

This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart right now. If you write, and you want other people to read what you write, then you know about rejection. The deflating feeling of inadequacy, of lack, of not being good enough. 

It’s funny that a profession overwhelmingly comprised of sensitive introverts requires them to put themselves out there in such a deeply personal way.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve stopped pandering–so much–to my ego. It’s not that I don’t care if I get published or that it doesn’t hurt to get those formulaic thanks but no thanks letters back from lit mags–I do, and it does. It’s just that I’ve decided I’ve got to have faith in myself, and faith in the transformative powers of the writing process. The rest will come, or it won’t.

Believe me, I’d love the outside affirmation. I’d love the recognition, the accolades, but I also know from hard-won experience that those things are insubstantial. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.” Success and rejection are just two sides of the same coin. If you are unmoored and grasping, they’re both problematic. The praise itself doesn’t make your work valuable. And in fact, it just sets up further expectations and opportunities for self-doubt. Do I deserve this? Am I a fraud?

Further, I think as writers we would be better served by reframing our personal stances on success and failure. Consider: It’s not you against the world. We writers are all in this together.  Instead of stalling over rejections, let’s work towards creating a community with other writers, supporting them in spite of their own rejections, and (trying) not to be envious in the face of their successes. A generous spirit is expansive, creative, transformative. It’s something to work towards because that’s where the magic happens.

How to Write Well

What helps you to write well? Strong coffee? A concise outline? The perfect background music?

Dig deeper.

One often overlooked component to good writing is safety. In order to write well, you need to feel safe. You need to feel free to express yourself. Otherwise, your mind clenches, and your so-called rational mind takes control. You worry about what people will think of your writing, of you. You worry still: Is this any good? Am I wasting my time?

Nothing will shut you up faster than that.

What you want for your writing is unfettered authenticity. You want your unique, uninhibited self to shine through. In order to do that, you need to feel safe. But how do you feel safe? How do you overcome your fears, of failure or rejection or whatever it is that keeps you from writing what you really want to write?

This is an elusive practice, and there are no clear-cut answers. But I’ve found one technique in an unexpected place: yoga. What started out for me as a purely physical exercise has become a mainstay of my writing practice. It is grounding. It is playful. It is about discovery and deep self-acceptance. It is about embracing mystery. It’s about quieting all those nagging voices that tell you you are wasting your time, to give up, to go to law school and make sure your life actually amounts to something.

Yoga, at its philosophical core, is about uniting who you think you are with who you actually are. Starting a yoga session is a lot like sitting down to the blank page. You are wrestling with your mind, with its endless possibilities both good and bad, with your potential. You discover what you are capable of. Ultimately, it teaches you to trust yourself. And this trust is where safety lies.

Inspiration: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

What inspires you to write? Why do you do it? Finding and tapping into your larger purpose can be extraordinarily motivating. Many great writers have spoken about the writer’s responsibility to ease suffering and not contribute to it. That’s a powerful directive. 

A good story shows us that we can overcome our suffering, transcend it, and maybe even turn it into something meaningful. This explains my penchant as a kid for female protagonists who used their imagination to overcome their demons and find the latent power within themselves. In literary fiction maybe the overcoming takes on a more metaphorical dimension, but I think it’s still true. 

Another related point is about faith. Writers need to cultivate faith: in themselves and in the writing process. Especially with a difficult or long story, like a novel, it’s often hard to see the way forward, at least in the beginning. It’s a vast undertaking. It feels like a stab in the dark. Still, you sit down to write with the blind hope that at some point it’ll take shape. If the going gets rough, you might blame writer’s block, the writing gods, your muse. There’s this persistent notion of the fickled muse, the idea that writers can get lucky or that their genius is somehow fleeting. Maybe that’s a nice thought because then you aren’t really responsible for what you do or don’t accomplish.

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 I don’t mean to diminish the role of mystery in writing. I think it is very mysterious. I also think that good writing taps into something beyond yourself. Beyond, but not outside. And, if you look at writing as a practice–maybe even an act of devotion– I think that gets closer to the truth. The practice of writing is an act of faith. The words on the page are your offering.

I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Poetry is…

[Results of a freewriting exercise from The Aspiring Poet’s Journal]

poetry is the excavation and the expanse

poetry is an arm that stretches back and inward

to emptiness or elsewhere

poetry is a blackbird’s wing, inky and slight

poetry is my unhinged jaw fluttering

poetry is veils of meaning

poetry is magical thinking

poetry is the vise that cleaves

the cork from my throat

poetry is dried blood on the old wound

poetry is passage

We Don’t Know What “Normal” Is

I, like many others, suffer from anxiety. Often, it is just a generalized buzzing, a pervasive feeling of dread, this excess negative energy. Other times it is acute, sharp, and dangerous-feeling. These are panic attacks. To me, these feel way worse than the generalized anxiety, which typically starts in my head and stays there. Panic, on the other hand, hijacks my body. My heartbeat feels impossibly fast, my throat feels like it’s closing, my vision narrows and darkens. My chest feels constricted. Sometimes, I can’t feel my hands. I can feel myself spinning out of control. In those moments, I feel horribly damaged. Broken. Like there is something really wrong with me.

I haven’t really found a great solution for the panic attacks. For me, the best plan of action has been to avoid situations that tend to lead to panic attacks. But, once I’m in the middle of one, the only thing to do is ride it out, pray to a god that I don’t really believe in, repeat some positive affirmations that I don’t really believe in, lie through my teeth and tell myself that I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. Eventually, it passes.

Afterward, I still feel shaky and weak. It’s like I’ve seen a part of myself and I can’t go back.  I’ve seen myself for who I really am: frail and fragile and struggling to keep it together, and usually failing. I don’t always see myself this way, but there’s something about the aftermath of a panic attack that makes me feel vulnerable and flawed. This feeling can last for days or weeks. I feel depressed and, ultimately, anxious again.

That’s when I try to remind myself that I don’t know what normal is. Not really. Have I ever been normal? How would I know? So, what am I striving for? Most of the time, I tell myself that I should be different or how I shouldn’t have this problem. I compare myself to some imaginary person who has all their shit together. Deep down I know it’s a fiction: to think you know about someone else’s interior life. We don’t know what normal is. All we have is our own lived experience. Start from there. All those shoulds and should’nts just end up giving you an inferiority complex.

Solitude and Fear

This weekend, I went on a one-woman writer’s retreat. There’s a cabin on Whidbey Island that I found listed on Airbnb a few years ago. It’s a single-occupancy dwelling nestled in the woods, complete with a strong wifi signal and three thesauruses. It’s designed specifically for writers. I bookmarked it and periodically came back to it, thinking, one day, I would go there.  Not today, though. Not this month.

I told myself it was because of my toddler. Wouldn’t it be cruel to leave her behind for three whole days? How could I explain my absence to her?  It seemed a luxury I couldn’t afford. But truthfully: I was afraid. I was afraid of being alone, for vast stretches of time. I thought I might die of boredom, or of missing my daughter. More realistically, I thought I might have a mental breakdown being alone with my thoughts. The more I thought about it, the more I began to dread the specter of my own company. So I avoided it for many months.

My husband kept bringing it up, every so often, but I always had a good reason why now wasn’t a good time. Eventually, my sister told me I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like that. Of course, she was right. It was a little counterproductive, me standing in my own way. So, I booked it, even though the decision itself was made with much trepidation. Even, at times, regret. But the cabin had a very strict no refund policy, and so it was decided.

I cooked three day’s worth of food ahead of time and braced myself for solitude. If I was going to do this, I was really going to do it.  I didn’t want any distractions. (I didn’t even pack wine.) Instead, I packed several notebooks and several more books. I wanted to brainstorm my next writing project, journal, and read. Maybe do some yoga and meditation. And I did all those things. But mostly, I just sat around and thought.

I thought a lot about fear and how difficult it can be to express when you are afraid. It feels somehow humiliating, an infantilizing admission. I also felt a bit unreasonable in my fear, like I didn’t deserve the opportunity if I was only going to be angsty about it. (Funny how the mental admonitions of adult-me sound like echoes of emotionally neglectful parents.) Of course, it’s not patently unreasonable to be unnerved at spending three nights alone in an unfamiliar cabin in the woods, away from everyone you know, without so much as a car or reliable phone service.

Regardless.

I was able to parse through my thought processes and really analyze the fear that I hold inside of me. The fear wasn’t the problem so much as the denial of it was. The avoidance, the minimalizing. That’s what people have been doing to me my whole life, but it’s weirdly terrifying to realize that I do it to myself.

But fear is so human. When we avoid our fear, when we attempt to will it out of existence, we only succeed in diminishing our own humanness.

There are a lot of things I fear, many of them I don’t even think I can acknowledge properly. Some of these feelings have been forced down for so long that I no longer recognize them for what they are. It’s a long process to unravel the knotty threads that kink and bind your perception. Solitude helps. Facing yourself–your true, human form–honestly and gently, is perhaps the best antidote for fear.