Work that Matters

Today’s blogpost may be more in the nature of a vent (oh dear!), but I’ll try to keep it concise…

If you’ve followed the blog over the past couple of months, you know that my second novel, Fourteen Stones, is currently on submission with agents. A few agents have been checking out the full manuscript. From what I know about their timelines, it’s likely I’ll get news this week or next.

In the rollercoaster that is the writing/submitting/publishing life, it’s so very easy to wrap your whole self around the outcome of a submission. If this doesn’t work out, it’s the end of the world! I’ve been down that twisty, destructive road many times. I’ve had things not work out that I believed absolutely had to…and I’ve reacted accordingly. (Which wasn’t good for myself, or the walls that took a pounding, or that one saucepan lid that hasn’t been the same since I spiked it on the floor.) And I’ve found out, again and again, that things can go in ways other than what I want, or expect, or firmly believe must happen. And when they do, that’s okay.

Things didn’t go the way I expected with my first novel, To Love A Stranger, but the book is out in the world and my publisher did a beautiful job. Fourteen Stones is only another step along this road that I plan to stay on for life. I want to write many more books, and I want to do many more things as a writer and teacher, so I have to remind myself – daily, hourly – that while yes, I care very much what happens to Fourteen Stones, and yes, its future does matter, other things matter too.

Alafair portrait
Today is a day for cat pictures. This is Alafair, who rules the roost.

The past couple of months have been a see-saw between obsessing about submissions and getting on with the rest of life and the work that needs to be done. Looking back, I’m afraid the balance tipped too often in the direction of obsessing. It’s so easy to pour tons of emotional energy into the waiting and hoping, those things over which we have zero control. Other projects I maybe should have spent more time on have sat on the back burner. I’m disappointed about that, but the daily exercise is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and doing the best I can.

Thinking (and obsessing) about submissions has also gotten me thinking about ambition, and what it means in the writing life. Ambition is a tough thing. It’s sure easy to dream about that lottery-winning book, the one that gives a huge payoff for all the hours you spent working and sweating, the one that means security for good or at least for a while. It’s easy to imagine your name and your agent’s name in a Publisher’s Marketplace listing of recent notable sales, and then the reviews and book tours and signings. Wouldn’t it be amazing if…

And then, especially if you’re like me and you have regular go-arounds with the twin wraiths Depression and Anxiety, it’s easy to tell yourself you’re an idiot to let your imagination run wild like that. It won’t happen for you. Your work could never deserve that. You’re a nobody and always will be…

The key, which I’m daily and hourly trying to learn, is that in the end, the work itself matters more than anything else. An agent or editor has to evaluate my words and decide their worth according to a particular scale: will the book sell, is it worth the vast outlay of time and resources needed to publish it? I don’t have any control over those decisions. What I can control is whether the work satisfied me, whether I feel I told the story to the best of my ability and created something I’m proud of. And more: I can control what I choose to do with my time, what new words I decide to put on the page, what projects of editing and teaching I take on. I can decide how I use these abilities I’ve been given and have worked hard to develop.

Templeton cubbyhole
This is Templeton, demonstrating an excellent cat storage option.

Writers can do important work in the world. Whether we publish a lot or not, whether our words reach a handful of people, or hundreds, or thousands, our words do change the people they reach. A lot of us have that go-to book, or story, or poem, or essay, that helps us through the difficult times. A lot of us can look back on something we read that took hold of us in some way and never let go. Maybe it opened our eyes to a new idea. Maybe it was a shaft of light in a dark place, or an anchor in spinning chaos. Maybe it called out to us and made us think, How can I make something like this?

Those of us who teach writing do an important job too. Over the past couple of years, as I’ve had the chance to work in different classrooms with different groups of writers, I’ve been repeatedly amazed and impressed with the communities that form in those places. People come in as strangers, share their work with each other, and trust one another with their stories. Once they do that, they aren’t strangers anymore. Whether or not they’re the kind of people who would naturally become friends “out in the world,” in the world of the writer’s workshop they are now colleagues and allies. They see each other in a way that the world doesn’t always give us the chance to do.

That work matters. Writers, writing, can bring people together and help them see one another. The work can help us remember that each of us has a story, and those stories deserve respect.

I don’t know what might happen with Fourteen Stones, or whether the outcome might keep up with some of the ambitions I’ve had, but I do know I have work to do that matters. Every day, I need to do my best to let go of the things I can’t control, and do the things I can.

Fergus not on the table (2)
And this is Fergus, who is definitely not on the table.

Photos by Kris Faatz

 

Success?

Lately I’ve been thinking – and posting – a lot about forgiving mistakes, recognizing when I don’t know how to do things, and accepting my imperfections. All of these are important and challenging things for me to contend with, because of that “need to be perfect” and “need to know” I’ve written about before. This week, though, I find myself thinking more about a different kind of challenge: recognizing what I can do.

It’s a funny contradiction. On the one hand, I feel like I have to do everything right. On the other, I’m used to thinking of myself as the kind of person who fails a lot. Perfectionists are probably often like this: getting things “right” matters so much that we focus on every mistake and don’t see the things that do go well. It used to be that whenever I was learning how to do something, I had to feel like I knew exactly how to do it, right out of the gate.

Writing has given me many tough lessons about failure. When I first started writing seriously, I had the same contradiction always running in my head. My gut felt like my work was crap, but at the same time, I couldn’t stand to get helpful feedback. My work had to be perfect, even though I had no idea what I was doing. It took one particular workshop, with two brilliant and mercilessly thorough teachers, to get through my not-listening barrier. They showed me all the things I had stubbornly refused to see about my own work, and showed me what I would have to be able to do if I wanted to be a decent writer. They took apart my then-novel-in-progress, five hundred pages of crap at the time, and showed me how to rebuild it from the ground up. Somewhere in the course of that four-day session, I realized I could either hang onto my pride and my five hundred pages, or I could let them go, have a good cry, and start learning how to write. After the workshop, I went home and started my novel over again. It eventually became To Love A Stranger.

ocean view 1

Looking back, I think I can say that in spite of all my stubborn wiring, I did learn how to fail. It was a crucial lesson. Interestingly, now I can see how far the pendulum has swung back the other way, and how in any given situation, I usually expect myself to screw up one way or another.

We all know how much failure can hurt. The funny thing is, it can also feel safe. If you know – or at least think – you’re going to screw up, maybe you don’t expect much from yourself. Maybe it doesn’t hurt quite as much if you fall down. Maybe you don’t ask yourself to reach for things that feel too big, or too daring, because why should you? You probably can’t have them anyway. And above everything else, maybe it feels safer not to think that other people believe in or count on you. If you can succeed, you can also disappoint.

The more we care about something, the scarier it might be to succeed at it. If we love something but we’re not good at it, it stays small and private. If it turns out we are good at it, if maybe we have something to share that other people would like to have, and if those people start counting on us for that thing, then we had better stay good at it or else.

I’m starting to feel that success-fear in my writing life. My second novel has gotten some terrific feedback that makes me proud to share it, but also more than a little scared. When I was writing it, I felt like after all these years of trying, maybe I’d finally learned how to tell a good story. But I’m used to thinking my work is fair-to-middling. What if I thought I actually could tell a good story? Higher stakes. Farther to fall if I find myself struggling.

And as a writing teacher, I’m starting to hear that I do have gifts that help other people. A couple of weeks ago, I was a presenter at a writers’ conference: a big new scary challenge I’d never faced before. I went into it frankly expecting to stumble through the hour-long presentation somehow, and then maybe go crawl into a hole. Instead, I found the audience listening eagerly, asking questions, telling me afterward how much they’d appreciated the session…and I realized, maybe more clearly than I ever have before, that I can do this. I can teach this craft I love so much, and I can make a difference for people who want to learn.

These are tough truths for me to absorb. They mean so much that my reflex is to push them aside. Dangerous. Scary. My head tells me to keep myself small. Keep expecting myself to screw up, because who knows what big awful explosion could happen if I started actually trusting what I can do?

I’m still trying to organize all these things in my head, but maybe, when we share our gifts – even if we don’t always do it as well as we’d like – we can do some good. Maybe we make a difference, and it matters.

I always want to remember how to fail well. Maybe, though, I can also learn how to succeed.

rainbow

Photos by Paul Faatz

Reaching For the New

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about mistakes, learning, and growth. More on that shortly…

Today I had reason to look over the different kinds of work and jobs I did last year. Often, when I look at things like my jobs and income, it turns into an exercise in embarrassment and self-criticism. Seriously, what’s wrong with you? Everybody else your age has a “real” job. (Sidebar: I know plenty of artists with working lives like mine, but my inner critic tends to forget about that.) Why are you so stubborn? Why can’t you do things the way an adult is supposed to?

Last year was a year of changes. My husband had just retired, and I wanted to take up slack with income, and we had to figure out how we were going to manage some things that we’d always taken for granted. At the same time, 2017 was the year my first book came out. Going into 2018, I felt my professional life and goals shifting. I wanted to move more fully over to my writer-side and explore the possibilities there.

As I looked over what happened last year, I realized that one way or another, I did all of those things. It didn’t always feel like it at the time. Most of the time I seemed to be scrambling, worrying, and self-criticizing endlessly. You need to be earning more. What do you mean, new career goals? You’re pushing forty. You don’t have that luxury anymore. When are you going to grow up? In spite of all that, I worked some jobs, brought in some money, got through the day-to-day…and on top of that, wrote a new book I’m pretty proud of. And in spite of all the noise in my head, sometimes the process was actually fun.

photo challenge Irises
photo by Kris Faatz

As I looked back over those experiences, I realized how rarely I’m able to feel proud of myself. My reflex is always to find things to criticize. If I’m not perfect, or “the best” (whatever the definition of that might be), I’m not enough. The reflex is a byproduct of depression, anxiety, and the messages I got when I was growing up. My inner critic tells me that mistakes can’t happen. I have to do things right on the first try. At any given moment, I have to be whatever is required: there is never room for learning, growth, experimentation, or change.

I’ve criticized myself for having new goals, as if somehow the fact of having them means that my earlier goals were mistakes. (And, of course, my critic says that mistakes aren’t allowed.) I’ve criticized myself for changing my focus and reaching out to explore what I might be able to do as a writer and a teacher of writing. You wanted to be a musician. Isn’t that enough? And again, my critic is right there with a loud What’s wrong with you? But slowly, with many stumbles, I’m trying to change my own thought patterns.

To do that, I’m trying to plant three ideas in my head:

  1. Problems can be solved.
  2. Mistakes can be rectified, learned from, and forgiven.
  3. (this one is the hardest) Change and growth are not mistakes: nor do they have to mean that mistakes were made.

As we go into spring (finally!), I’m reaching toward my new goals again. One of them has to do with my new book, which I would love to see out in the world. Another – a big one – has to do with the kind of work I hope to do as a teacher of writing. I’m pulling together, reorganizing, and restructuring some scattered ideas I’ve had over the past year or so. Leading my first writers’ workshop has taught me a lot about teaching, and what kind of teacher I hope to be. Plans are in the works. Spring feels like a good time to give them my best energy.

To do that, I have to recognize that, yes, I’m allowed to grow. I’m allowed to change. New and different priorities are allowed, and if I want to do good work on them, I have to develop new skills. That means learning. I might make mistakes, but that’s how learning works.

When I insist on being perfect, I’m only getting in my own way. Trying to live up to an impossible standard will shut me off to learning and slow me down. If I focus on “how good I am” and “how I measure up” to whoever or whatever is around me, I’m thinking about myself rather than the work I need to do (and also probably burning a lot of energy feeling anxious, aggressive, defensive, and depressed). The work matters more than the mental games ever could.

I don’t have to be perfect. Right now, at this moment, I don’t have to be everything I’ll ever want or need to be. I’ve gotten where I am through a process of growth – however reluctant it was – and that growth can only continue.

It’s hard to remember, but I’m going to try. The work deserves it.

wisconsin 2012 wildflowers
photo by Paul Faatz

Need to Know?

I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to know how things are going to go. When I drive anywhere, no matter how familiar or innocuous the route might be, I always visualize myself getting to my destination and then getting home again. When I get ready for any kind of event, a class or presentation or performance, I often count down the time until it’s over. (“Two days from now, at this time, it’ll be done. Tomorrow, at this time, it’ll be done. Twelve hours from now. Five hours from now.”) I get as prepared as I can, and try to imagine myself in the setting and successfully getting through the work involved. Meanwhile, the simple fact of being able to measure “how long before it’s over” is often the most important comfort.

My “need to know” has two pieces. I need to know I’ll get through whatever it is I have to do. I’ve also always needed to know that I know how to do whatever it is. I’ve always wanted to feel that I have the answers. I can script out exactly how to handle any given situation. I can gear myself up to do whatever it is, and do it perfectly, without a single question or hitch.

Performing has been part of my life for many years, ever since I was a kid playing in my first piano recitals. These days, performance doesn’t just mean sitting at the piano in front of an audience: it means teaching, lecturing, anything that involves standing up in front of a group and giving them something. I’m used to it, and it’s become reflex to step into my performer-self any time I need to get up and deliver. My performer-self is stronger, smarter, and far more polished than the real me. The person inside that suit of armor might be cringing and scared, but the suit of armor hangs onto the smile and doesn’t make mistakes.

At least, I’ve always believed that. Lately, though, I’m starting to see exactly how much I don’t know about things.

river 1

 

A therapist I used to work with told me once that my approach to getting through tasks sounded exhausting. Always gearing myself up as if I were about to climb a mountain, and then dragging myself up it and back down the other side, and then having to gear myself up for the next thing, over and over, day after day. My need to know turned everything into the need to be perfect, no matter how routine or familiar a job might be.

For the past few months, I’ve had one particular teaching job that has very much challenged my ability to put on my performer-self. It’s a once-a-month creative writing workshop with kids from Baltimore City high schools, through the program Baltimore Bridges. I went into it thinking that here, especially, maybe more than in any other job I’ve had, I had to have the answers and know what to do. It was so important to do a good job working with these kids. I had to get it right.

The thing was, the job was different from anything else I’ve done. I’m used to working with kids one-on-one, as a piano teacher. I’m used to working with younger kids, not high schoolers. Music has been my teaching focus, not creative writing, as much as I love the writing craft and love to talk about it and work with other writers. And the kids in the program come from backgrounds totally different from my own, different enough that I got self-conscious, worried that I wouldn’t know how to connect with them the way a teacher needs to, especially to guide and encourage creative work.

My performer-self wasn’t much help here. Trying to be perfect and have all the answers didn’t achieve a lot. The best thing I could do as a teacher was figure out how to be a person, one person meeting other people and saying, “Hey, let’s talk about this creative thing we all like to do. I’ll tell you what I think about it, and I want to hear what you think.”

It took a while to get used to that idea. I’m still getting used to it, and still cringing over every mistake I think I make. The “be perfect” reflex is still very much alive. The process is teaching me, though, that other things matter more than the need to know. Being flexible matters. Being willing to learn matters. Being able to meet people, anyone and everyone, where they are, and as I am, as a real person rather than a suit of armor: maybe that matters more than anything else.

When you’re a real person, you can get out of the way and do the work that needs to be done. When kids write their thoughts in response to a piece of music they’ve never heard before, and one of them comes up with a startling and beautiful poem, and then is shy about sharing it because “it’s not like what everybody else did,” you can say Be yourself, and mean it. When the workshop group takes a given prompt in an unexpected direction, and they’re laughing and working together and you can feel them becoming a community of writers, you can step aside and say Go for it. When someone apologizes because they broke whatever mold of expectations they thought you had, you can tell them No, I want you to do your own thing. And you do.  

When I’m focused on being perfect, the suit of armor takes over, center stage. But the work, whether it’s a workshop or a class or a performance, matters a whole lot more than me and my need to know.

I’ve always thought I needed to be more-than-myself to do anything right. But if I’m admitting I don’t have all the answers, I also have to admit that maybe it’s okay not to. Maybe it’s actually better.

The work matters, always. I want to be a better writer and a better teacher; I want to grow, all the time. To do that, I have to put away the need to know, and pick up the need to learn instead. And then hold onto it, every day.

pastoral

Photos by Paul Faatz