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
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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