It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and I wanted to write an update about what’s been going on for me.
I’ve been struggling lately with the direction in which I want to take this blog. I’ve often felt like it’s disjointed, that it lacks a cohesive subject matter or at least a unifying voice. This makes it more difficult to come up with content, in addition to the blog being, I think, a less useful resource. And I get very frustrated when I write those fluffy, straightforward posts (10 tips for whatever, How to Reach Your Ultimate Potential.) It just feels unnatural to write, somehow inauthentic. . . I think maybe the positive, self-help sort of moralizing is not a good fit for me. I don’t even know why I do it. Is that what I think people want to hear? (Maybe they actually do, but you wouldn’t know it based on my number of blog subscribers! *waves*)
Many, many times I’ve thought about quitting blogging. Maybe it’s not for me, maybe I don’t understand how this works. Most of the blogs I find on WordPress are pretty formulaic and uninteresting, even the really popular ones. I especially hate the Creative Commons images that I continually put on each and every post because I’ve read over and over again that YOU MUST INCLUDE PICTURES ON YOUR POSTS. Seriously, who is clicking on my blog to see a generic picture of a latte and a laptop?!!? Thinking about it, it’s definitely possible that blogging is just not for me.
This coronavirus period has been a useful excuse to step back and reflect on my priorities, research new directions, and plan for the future. I’ve decided, for starters, that I’m not quite ready to quit this blog yet. Even though I haven’t found my niche. I think it’s a useful exercise to experiment with form, and it gives me a good reason to write regularly. I like having a digital home for my unpublished writing. And somewhere deep down I feel like this blog has the potential to be interesting, useful, and whole. Something that more accurately reflects who I am.
So that’s the goal, in a nutshell. I have no concrete plans for where I’m going to take this yet. I just wanted to verbalize some things I’ve been thinking about.
This week, I registered for a writing class at the Hugo House in Seattle. Because of Coronavirus, they’ve moved all their classes online, which is great because now they’re more accessible to people like me, who live further away and/or prefer not to leave the house.
The class is “Phantasmagoria: Writing Monsters & Myths.” I’m so excited! I’ve been working on a few poems inspired by Greek mythology, but I’ve been having a hard time pulling them together, so I hope this class will be a good motivator.
One myth I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is Theseus and the Minotaur.
Actually, let’s forget about Theseus: A garden-variety “hero,” who only escapes the labyrinth by lying to Ariadne–promising to marry her in return for her help, only to leave her stranded and brokenhearted on the next remote island as he continues his victorious voyage home. No thanks.
Instead, I want to talk about the Minotaur’s mother, Pasiphaë. She was daughter of Helios, the sun god, worshipped by some as a full-fledged lunar goddess herself. She was also the queen of Crete, married to King Minos. Now, the Minotaur was created because Minos offended Poseidon by keeping a special bull that he was instead suppose to sacrifice. As punishment, Poseidon made Pasiphaë fall in love with that very bull … and the result of that unholy union was the Minotaur.
First off, can we recognize how supremely unfair this curse was for Pasiphaë? How she was forced to bear the brunt of the humiliation, not to mention the considerable physical pain of birthing a bull, because of her husband’s greed?
And greed wasn’t the only vice Minos had. Hence, the curse of Pasiphaë (who in addition to near-divinity was also a master herbalist): She placed a fidelity charm on Minos, which caused him to ejaculate serpents, scorpions, and centipedes whenever he was unfaithful. Unfortunately, the effect of that was to kill the mistress (another spectacular instance of misplaced aggression), but still it’s a pretty badass curse.
Mythology is full of stories like this: Misplaced rage and women who primarily act as receptacles to the larger male drama. Many times, they aren’t even named (e.g., the many stung and snake-bitten mistresses of King Minos). Clearly, these stories reflect a particular male-oriented (and often downright misogynistic) lens. But, luckily, they’re also ripe for refocusing, reinvention, and maybe even a little revenge.
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.
I’ve been practicing my poetry lately, and I’ve been having a hard time coming up with anything that sticks. So, I’ve resorted to my old book of poetry exercises, The Practice of Poetry. This particular exercise asks you to write about a memory from childhood–one that is not often thought about but maybe has some recent significance to you. Pay particular attention to how you use tense, how you cope with the passage of time as it effects your understanding of the past event.
Here’s what I came up with:
Lost in the woods
We found ourselves finally
at the side of a road,
the crossroads between
camp and wilderness.
The sun bent towards setting,
reflecting the blues in everything:
blue the mountains, menacing
blue the feral eyes, darting
blue the lone car passing,
then gone. Then silence.
There was no one looking for us but
we came back anyway
sometimes we still hide in trees
hoard our tears like sapphires
I just got a short story published in a local online journal, Hamlit. It’s actually a story I wrote several years ago, before my daughter was born and I still lived in DC. My life was a lot different back then.
I wrote it for a class on Ghost Stories that I took at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. It’s more of a thought experiment than a story. I re-imagined my honeymoon as if it were populated by ghosts.
The story is set in Saguenay, a beautifully remote part of Quebec where I went for my actual honeymoon. The amalgamation of cultures, the stark beauty of the fjords, the weird art installations (for more see: Wikipedia) all had an otherworldly feel to them.
This was written during a phase where I was particularly interested in domestic horror: haunted houses, invaded bodies, suffocating marriages. And especially, the idea of secret lives: Who lived in your house before you did? Who was your partner before you knew them? Who were your parents before you were born? Or even, what parts of you remain hidden from your own view?
I even started writing a NaNo novel around these sorts of themes: A pregnant woman finds a pair of children’s shoes buried in the fireplace of the old victorian home she and her husband recently moved into. She becomes convinced that the house is haunted, marred by some unspeakable event. Then I got pregnant and never finished it.
Still today, the symbolism of the haunted house fascinates me. So do ghosts. Sometimes I feel like we live in a world made of ghosts. Trauma is a kind of ghost. Family secrets are a kind of ghost. Even my stories become ghosts.
[N.B.: This is a post I started writing in October and then promptly forgot about posting until now! Better late than never!]
It’s National Novel Writing Month! It’s my absolute favorite time of the year. It’s crazy, it’s hectic, but it’s such a mainstay of my writing life I think I’d be lost without it. This will be my 10th year as a NaNo Participant, and my first year as Municipal Liaison for the wonderful Skagit Valley region.
I don’t typically relish public leadership roles (social anxiety, nagging self doubt, existential dread, etc.), but I felt so strongly about NaNo that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. My first NaNo, back in 2007, came at a time of my life when everything was in flux: I had just graduated college and found my first full-time job in all its soul-sucking glory, started dating my first girlfriend and so came out as queer in an awkward, bumbling sort of way. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life and I felt out of control of it. I don’t even remember how I found out about NaNo (I think I saw a book in a bookstore by Chris Baty?), but it sounded like a great distraction and sufficiently impressed my girlfriend, so I was all in.
I didn’t make it to 50K that year (it would take about 5 years of trying to do so) but I found that I could write, I found the pleasure in telling a story. I wrote a sci-fi novel about a lowly office assistant who has an Alice-in-Wonderland-type journey to another planet where she discovers her true powers. It was a really meaningful story for me, about the powerless finding power, about hope in darkness, about the suffocation of roles and binaries and how to free yourself from that. Most of all, the actual act of writing gave me hope and purpose. I had something meaningful to say and I was saying it. That’s a kind of power I didn’t know I had access to.
And I was hooked. Ten years later and I haven’t regretted a single hectic November. And it’s wild to me that I’m now an ML and my job is to cheer on other novelists, people who love what I love and value what I value: personal narratives, freedom of expression, stories of all kinds. For me, it’s never been about the word count, it’s always been about the community. Through our stories, we reach out to others and share the deep, undiscovered parts of ourselves.
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.
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.
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”