One Equals Fifty-One

There’s a wonderful passage in the novel Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett. My copy of the book is buried in a stack somewhere, so I can’t pull up an exact quote, but the passage goes something like this:

Two deities are talking about their respective groups of followers. One of them, a “small god,” has fifty-one followers. The other has thousands, but for a long time only had one.

The small god is wondering what will happen if he loses a single follower. He asks the big one, “Is fifty less than fifty-one?”

“A lot less,” the big god answers.

“How about one? Is one less than fifty-one?”

“It’s the same.”

Hold onto that thought…

ocean view 3
photo by Paul Faatz

Lately, I’ve been pretty depressed. Depression is a semi-constant presence for me, sometimes more insistent, sometimes milder. In the milder phases, I can forget that it’s possible to feel as bad as I do at other times. These days it’s definitely insistent.

When my depression gets loud, sometimes I have a hard time pinpointing the reasons why. Not so much this time.  In my professional life, I’ve tried for some things that haven’t worked out. The jury is still out on other efforts. I’m not good at waiting for results and keeping positive. The days start to feel, one after the other, like loads to pick up and drag along. I start to wonder if I can really get all the way from another morning to another night, from the beginning of one week to its end.

It’s hard to keep from comparing yourself to other people; at least it always is for me. I look at a colleague who’s probably about my age, maybe a little older, who’s a successful teacher and a mom and the kind of writer who gets multi-book contracts. I look at her, and others like her, and worry that the table I desperately want to sit at is already full. I worry that there isn’t and won’t be room for me among that community of writers who make a difference in the world. Depression tells me I’m right to have those fears. It tells me I don’t have enough to show for myself, and maybe never will.

Those messages can feel horribly accurate. But then, if I push myself – as today – I remember to take a look at the workshop I teach at the local library: my first workshop, which got started a year and a half ago. One of my students came in at the beginning with very little experience as a writer and – it seemed – some pretty strong resistance to learning, but is now one of our smartest readers and workshoppers. Another student came in as a very talented writer but didn’t feel she knew enough about the craft to prepare and submit a publishable short story; she just got her first acceptance from a literary journal. What started out as a random group of people with widely diverse levels of ability and experience is now a tight-knit community who cheer for each other, laugh together, and help one another to grow and do their best possible work on the page.

It’s not a tenure-track teaching job at a high-powered school. But I love the work and it helps me figure out what kind of teacher I am and can be. And if you help one person to do something they’ve dreamed about, if you change things a little bit for that one person, aren’t you making a difference in the world?

“Is one less than fifty-one?”

“It’s the same.”

pastoral
photo by Paul Faatz

It can be hard to celebrate victories that don’t match what the world calls “real success.” It can be especially hard if you’re like me, hard-wired from childhood to align your sense of self-worth with your accomplishments. I was the kind of kid who always got straight As in school and had that extracurricular activity, piano, which I played and excelled at the way other kids played and excelled at competitive sports. “Success” always meant a very specific thing to me when I was growing up, and success determined how much worth I had as a person.

Deciding to be an artist – or rather, figuring out that I was one, and nothing was going to change that – meant veering away from that definition of success. It meant that I needed to put value on the work I did because that work mattered to me, no matter what anyone else might think of it. It meant that I had to learn to value myself as the kind of person who had to make art, because turning my back on the things I really loved meant losing myself in untenable ways. It meant that I had to accept that maybe I wasn’t that competitive, driven, straight-A kid anymore, but an adult who could choose her own view of what success was about.

I’m still trying to learn those lessons, every day. Depression gets loud and wants me to lose track of what really matters. Depression says that I don’t have much to celebrate even though my first published book was ten years in the making, and even though I have the chance to help other writers with the craft I delight in, and even though I am, really, in small ways or bigger ones, doing work that matters to me, pretty much every day. Depression says those things don’t add up to “enough.” Never will.

Depression lies. Anyone who’s dealt with it knows that, but it can be hard to remember. It’s very hard when you do fall into the self-comparison trap and feel like you can’t possibly measure up to your colleagues, and therefore you “don’t deserve” and “can’t have.”

Here’s something I’m thinking about. Maybe it can help to realize that no matter how skilled or able a given person is, that person can’t be everywhere, doing everything: which means there is room at the table for others who want to help with the work. Maybe it’s true that each of us brings something different to the group, something that strengthens the group as a whole. And maybe each of us, each writer and teacher, is unique in some specific and irreplaceable way, and therefore what we do will reach different people in different ways. Maybe there are a couple of people, or five, or ten, or more, who will find that what I do is specifically helpful for them. If you reach one person, you make a difference.

“Is one less than fifty-one?”

“It’s the same.”

And here’s the other piece of that. I can feel lost in the writer-world, one fish in a huge ocean, too small to matter. Depression tells me to accept that view of my insignificant self. But if I can understand that “one is the same as fifty-one,” then I need to realize something else:

I am also one.

And that matters.

rose of sharon
photo by Kris Faatz

Ministry

Ministry. What does that word mean? What, especially, does it mean for a writer?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a writer, and a teacher of creative writing, and a musician more than sometimes, what’s the main direction for all of my work? What am I doing in the world? What is my work doing, and what would I like it to do?

I’m thinking about these things during the breaks I manage to take from obsessing over when I might get news about my second novel, currently on submission. Anyone who’s ever sent work out knows this routine. In your head, you carry a schedule. You’re statistically likelier to hear back from the people who are looking at your work – agents, editors, judges, whatever – on a business day, so call it Mondays through Thursdays, because people sometimes take off on Fridays. Mondays feel like a pretty strong possibility, because people are getting back fresh from the weekend and catching up on stuff. And Tuesdays feel likelier still, because now people have had Monday to get caught up, and they can really dig into their correspondence. Wednesdays are also pretty good. Thursdays feel a bit less likely, but still possible.

And you’re probably also likelier to hear from people during business hours, so let’s say nine to five, although the really peak hours are probably more like midday, between the time when people first get settled in at their desks to the point where they start packing up to leave. So call it eleven to four. So between eleven AM and four PM, Mondays through Thursdays, if you’re like me, you check your email over and over, always bracing yourself for the news that may or may not be there. Every time you check it and find nothing, you take a breath of relief. Then, after a while – maybe ten minutes, or fifteen, or if you’re really stubborn and strict with yourself, half an hour – you gear yourself up and check it again.

(By the way, eleven to four, Monday through Thursday, are the “witching hours,” when you obsess freely. But the other part of this, of course, is that you may not hear during business hours. You might get an email at ten o’clock on Thursday night, or noon on Sunday. You just don’t know, so you brace yourself all the time.)

Obsession is the nature of the game: definitely for me, and I think for most of us who have put our work out there for other eyes. It’s easy to send all our energy into the waiting and bracing. Rejection is tough, for all the reasons we know: the way it makes you doubt your work, the way it makes you doubt yourself. Acceptance can be tough too, though: the blast of adrenaline that leaves you reeling, the giddy rush that feels dangerously out of control. And I find it’s toughest of all to hang onto any kind of perspective during this process, any memory of why-I-do-this, why it matters regardless of what news I get, or when it arrives.

waterfall pic

For me, that’s where this question of “ministry” comes in. In my post from a couple of weeks ago, Conversation with the Zhinin, I mentioned some of my struggles with religion. I’ve hesitated to use the word “ministry” to myself, when thinking about my work, both because of its religious connotations and because I get nervous about the self-consciousness or self-importance of the word. It’s become inevitable, though. I have to engage with the question of what my work does in the wider world. How does it shape things? How does it help?

Writing is such an inner process. I sit at my computer and pull the words out of my head and put them on the page, or else I brainstorm and live in my fictional worlds while I’m doing other basic stuff like laundry and cooking. These worlds, these characters, matter deeply to me. But what do they matter to the outside, supposing they get there at all?

In his brilliant book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how we write first drafts “with the door shut,” just for ourselves. Then, when we revise, we hold the door open. We think about how readers might engage with and react to what we’ve put on the page. Imagining that response helps us to re-shape our work to give readers the experience we hope they’ll have.

I’ve thought that, at least for me, writing is something I always do “with the door shut.” These imagined worlds and characters so often feel like they’re just for me. I love them dearly, and working with them – for all its frustrations – gives me profound joy. But when the door does open, when someone else picks up my words and reads them, what happens?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about King’s words another way. In my second novel, my favorite character, the zhinin, is able to reach into other people’s minds and shape their experiences. It’s taken me maybe an absurdly long time to realize and accept the idea that I’m doing the same thing with my work. I don’t have my zhinin’s gift, to take away pain or ease anger or grief in a way that provides instant, almost-magical change, but maybe I do have his ability to open a door. Maybe, when I work, I’m opening the door not just in King’s way, letting myself think about the audience for my work and how I want them to receive it. Maybe I’m also opening a door in the minds I reach.

Ice pic 3

We know that reading fiction lets us escape from our own problems for a while. We also know it can strengthen empathy, as we step into someone else’s life and situation. Maybe this is a door that opens in a couple of directions. Step out of yourself. Put yourself in someone else’s place. Imagine what you would do and how you would feel, and then take those imaginings and bring them back into your own life, and maybe things there will look different.

Ministry. I can’t, won’t, re-shape the whole world through a book or story I write, as much as I might wish I could. I can’t, won’t, make that kind of change even through helping other people tell their own stories, though in that case it’s a little easier to imagine a ripple effect. But I can make small changes, for one person at a time. I can open a door.

So I obsess about when I might get news about my submissions, and I wonder – often – why I’m brainstorming about characters and worlds while I fold towels and cut up veggies for dinner, when those characters and worlds might never see the light of day, and I’m not sure what they’d accomplish anyway if they did. But I try to remember that in however small a way, I can open a door. I try to remember that this act is a ministry, and yes, it matters.

Brevard dawn pic

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

Experiments in Dream-Space

Riffing off of last week’s “Conversation with the Zhinin”…

You’ve been hanging out with your characters again lately. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because you’ve finished writing the book they feature in. (At least, you’ve finished it as far as any project is “finished” until publication, when it’s too late to find mistakes.) You were supposed to move on to something new.

You’ve tried to do that. You’ve tried writing scenes and sketches with new characters, going through getting-to-know-you exercises to learn about someone’s current problems and past shadows. You’ve tried to find the spark you know you need in order to invest wholeheartedly in a new story: the spark that will get you through hours upon hours at the keyboard, stretches of joyful satisfaction and deserts of frustration and struggle.

That spark will come eventually. You’ve done this kind of work long enough to know that. Meanwhile, though, in spite of all your best efforts, you find yourself going back again and again – with a persistence that, as Charles Dickens put it, might be “worthier of a much better object” – to those characters you hung out with all last summer and fall.

waterfall

There’s that one character you love. You loved him from the get-go: he was the motive power behind all four-hundred-and-some pages of your recently finished book. When you got blocked, say in the middle of a scene that didn’t include him, you thought about how if you just pushed through, you’d get back to one of those sections where he featured. Not that the writing necessarily got easier when he showed up in it. Sometimes it’s hardest to write about the characters you love the most. (You don’t want to screw it up, right? And he has to be perfect. Except not too perfect, because goodness knows, you wouldn’t want to spend much time with an insufferable do-gooder and know-it-all.) But every time he came into a scene, even if his presence slowed down your writing pace, you had the deep satisfaction of writing a character you found fascinating, complex, and richly rewarding.

Now, with his book “finished” and another one theoretically in the works, you’re supposed to have finished your time with him. Except that he still captures your imagination, and apparently your heart too: the zhinin you put on the page, the “good man with the bad heart” who embodies the kind of quiet wisdom, and strength under pressure, that always work on you. You find yourself going back to his story, over and over. Not the story you put on the page, but the history that shaped his character and made him into the person he became.

You’re not sure what the point of this exercise might be. Could some other book come out of it? Maybe. His history has plenty of shadows and conflicts, but they’re smaller and quieter, you think, than the ones that went into the book you wrote. You don’t know if those “smaller” problems would interest another reader enough. All you know is that when you spend time playing with those earlier scenes, going back and looking through what you didn’t put on the page, experimenting with ways you might shape and grow that material, you’re happy. Other worries and frustrations don’t matter as much when you’re digging in that sandbox. Sometimes they don’t matter at all.

harbor

You like to be in that space. Your times there tend to be rare and short. Happiness, especially simple happiness where outside stressors don’t intrude, isn’t very familiar territory for you. When you do find yourself there, you can feel how it shapes everything else you do and think. Life is easier. You have more energy. Challenges are exciting rather than exhausting.

Sometimes – more often than you’d like to admit – the world gets to be too much. Whether it’s problems on the global scale, or personal frustrations like the nth rejection you just got, or the perfect friend who seems to do everything right and savors successes you can – so far – only imagine, you find yourself running into roadblocks all the time. You work on dealing with them more quickly, picking yourself up and dusting yourself off faster, but the obstacles still drain more of your energy than you know they should. Sometimes they strip all of your power away for a while, and you have to wait until you can function again before you get back on your feet and keep going.

In this dream-space, though, this time of hanging out with your beloved character again and mulling over his past, you don’t notice the roadblocks. If one of them crops up in front of you, you find you barely notice as you dart around it or skim over it. The light and the energy of that simple happiness fill you up and carry you along.

So you don’t know where this exercise might take you, but though you’re a productivity-driven person, for now you put that question aside. It’s enough to feel that light and energy. It’s enough to be where you are.
rainbow

 

All photos by Paul Faatz

Conversation with the Zhinin

You go for a walk, alone. Maybe it’s the kind of gray-sky winter day with a breeze that makes you walk faster: a good day to eat up the miles. Maybe it’s the kind of early-spring day when you can feel the season turning, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. Or maybe it’s summer, in the morning, before it gets so breathlessly hot you have to go inside and stay there until the sun goes down again.

You go for a walk, alone. Except you’re a writer, so you’re not alone: your head is always busy with the people and places you create on the page. Right now, you have one of your characters with you. It’s easy to talk to a character.

Especially this one. He’s the kind of character you’ve always found it easy to love. You have a weakness for the “good man type,” the one who has a job to do and gets it done, but who carries the weight of some shadow of weakness or old grief. (Maybe that’s a cliché, but it works for you.) This particular character has both: the guilt of a long-ago loss and the chronic physical pain of heart trouble. A good-hearted man with a bad heart. You like the contradiction.

In the created world you’ve built around him, he is a zhinin, which in your created language means “priest” in the sense of “prophet.” You derived the word from the Lithuanian žyninas, choosing that word over others that meant “pastor” and “minister,” because you like the implications it carries. A prophet has to be honest. He tells the truth no matter who listens or not, or what they think of his message.

You’ve had your struggles with religion, but this man, your character, with his weakness and strength, represents everything you see as right in faith and the act of worship. Telling the truth. Tending to others. Helping his corner of the world, however flawed and troubled, get along from one day to the next.

photo challenge Irises
photo credit: Kris Faatz, 2015

He is easy to talk to. You’re alone, but not alone, and you talk.

On good days, I’m really good. On bad days, I’m awful. Sometimes I go from one to the other, over and over in a single afternoon.

“Good” days: well, those are the ones when I’m energetic, when I feel hopeful, when I feel like I can see who I am and what I need to do, and I know I’m doing what I need to. “Bad” days are the opposite. I’m tired and down. I can’t get anything done. Sometimes it feels like it isn’t worth trying.

You can tell him about the ugliness. You wouldn’t want just anyone to hear about it, but he doesn’t judge. (You’d think he can’t judge you, after all, because you put him on the page, but to be honest, characters go their own way. They can surprise you. But this man has enough “stuff” of his own.) You can tell him about the way you’ll be going along just fine, feeling positive about yourself and what you’re doing, and then you’ll see where some other writer – maybe a friend – got a book contract, or was hired to teach a fantastic class, or got invited to the kind of conference that wouldn’t look twice at a small-potatoes writer like you, and suddenly you find yourself turned upside-down with jealousy and a kind of tight self-directed anger that chews at your gut and tells you that you aren’t enough.

We all get that way, I know. But I wish when I was growing up that I’d learned it was okay not to be the best. I feel like everything depends on accomplishing. Other people have things I don’t, and I feel like there isn’t any room for me. Nothing I do matters, compared to what they’re doing or have done.

colorado sunflowers
photo credit: Paul Faatz, 2010

He asks you to spell out what you want: intentions, plans, and who you feel you are on the “good” days.

What I really want? Well, we all dream about the book that will win the lottery, so we don’t really have to worry about money anymore. But – if we’re talking about “good” days – I do remember that’s not the most important thing. The work matters. Writing stories that reach people: that matters. Helping other people tell the stories that mean something to them: that matters. Helping them make those stories as strong as they can: that matters too.

You tell him you think of this work as a “ministry.” You’re hesitant to use the word, because it sounds self-conscious, and you’ve had those struggles with religion. But, in fact, “ministry” is exactly the word that feels right. You want to know how you can use the gifts you were given. You didn’t ask for those gifts, and sometimes you tried very hard not to use them, but they’ve only gotten stronger and more insistent with time. When you let yourself do what they ask of you, you’re at your most happy. And you want to know how they can make the world better for someone else.

On “good” days, I know they can. I’ve seen how people change when they get excited about a story they want to tell, or a story that wants them to tell it. I’ve seen how much people can grow when they do this kind of work, and when they help each other to do it.

He knows what you mean. He tells you that, in his view, your line of work is much like his. In a different way, you are also a zhinin.

I don’t deserve the title.

In the fictional world he belongs to, it’s not just a job description, but an honorific of sorts. A zhinin doesn’t rank high in politics, maybe doesn’t earn much, but he or she gets in the trenches and does the necessary work. This one, your character, tells you that you do deserve the title. However many bad days you have, the “you” of the good days is always there. Hidden under the surface, maybe, but never lost.

You walk, alone but not alone, through the chilly winter air, or the almost-softness of early spring, or the languid summer heat that will soon turn searing. You hold that word in your head.

Zhinin.