Kris Faatz is a Baltimore-area pianist and teacher. She studied music and engineering at Swarthmore College and later received a Master’s degree in piano performance from the Peabody Institute. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, The Kenyon Review’s KROnline, Glassworks, and Reed Magazine, among others. Much of her writing takes inspiration from the music world, and explores connections between musical and verbal storytelling.
Following up on the very short post of a couple of weeks ago: today marks the launch of a project I’ve had in mind for a long time. 😊
Musical Meditations is a new, fully self-guided course on my website. It combines three elements: musical inspiration and space for journaling; features on four major composers and periods in music history; and writing prompts based on the music. (If you’re not a “serious” writer, don’t worry: you can still have fun with the prompts, and see where they might take you creatively.)
How it works:
The course is set up to be completed over four weeks. Each week features a different composer: Johann Sebastian Bach in Week 1, Johannes Brahms in Week 2, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Week 3, and George Gershwin in Week 4.
Each week, you’ll first listen to a recording I’ve made of some of the composer’s piano music. While you listen, you’ll journal or free-write, letting the music guide what you put on the page. This is a chance to give yourself space and get in touch with your own thoughts. Music is a great catalyst for this kind of self-expression.
After listening and journaling, you’ll read some background on the composer and the music you’ve heard, learning about that composer’s life, the time period the work belongs to, and some particular features of the pieces. Finally, you’ll be given a writing prompt that draws on the music in some way: something about its structure, or why the composer wrote it, or the time period it belongs to. You can work on the prompt at your own pace and see where it leads you.
Four weeks is the suggested pace, but you can work at your own speed. Once you’ve taken the course, you’ll always have access to the material, so you can go back to it whenever you’d like. As a special bonus offer for writers, if any of the prompts lead you to write creative work that you’d like to share with me for feedback and guidance, participants in this course receive a discount on my one-on-one manuscript consulting rate ($35 per hour instead of $50).
If you’d like to take the course, you can submit payment through PayPal. The suggested cost is $45, but pay what you can. I’m excited to offer this and can’t wait to see how it works for everyone! 😊
Once you submit payment, you’ll receive an email including a password, which will let you access the course page. (Please note that this process is not yet automated. I’ll be sending you the email personally, which may mean a slight delay, but you should receive it within 24 hours.)
Click here to submit payment. When you do, please be sure to include, in the “note” field, the best email to reach you.
If you have any questions or comments, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you take the course, please send me feedback any time. I’d love to hear what you think!
Today’s very short post is only to share that something new is coming soon to the website. A project for writers, music enthusiasts, and anyone looking for inspiration for their creative work, or simply something new to relax and open the mind, will be live most likely within the next week. This project has been a long time in planning, and I’m excited to share it. Stay tuned! 🙂
If you’ve been following the blog over the past few weeks, you know that one of the big things I’ve been writing about is recent experiences with anxiety. While panic attacks are familiar territory for me, the higher level of pretty-much-constant anxiety I’ve been living under is a new and highly unwelcome situation. I know I’m not the only one to go through something like this, though, and it’s been helpful for me to spend some time looking at causes and sitting with the feelings, rather than always trying to push back against them. If you’re a fellow struggler in these particular trenches, maybe some of these thoughts will help you too.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how a lot of what I’m currently experiencing started immediately after I made a promise to myself to take my work as a writer seriously. I was making the commitment to stand by my second novel until I find the right path to publication for it, and I was making the commitment to honor my work as a teacher and editor, and to remember that those skills are valuable and I should never doubt that fact. When I made that promise, I knew I’d get some level of pushback from depression, that longtime inhabitant of my brain. I didn’t know how strong the pushback was going to be.
I’ve posted before about what my particular experience over the past few weeks has been like: the intense discomfort, the worry that I can’t trust what my mind is doing, the cycles of concern I go through. (“What if I can’t function? Okay, I can function, but what if I can’t do this specific thing? Okay, I can do that thing, but what if I can’t do this other thing? OMG, I almost put the milk away in the pantry instead of the fridge; I knew I was losing it!” and on, and on…). Along with worries about basic functionality, I’ve been afraid to trust my imagination. Of course that’s the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction: being willing and able to create imagined worlds and people, to take small threads of reality and spin them into a new and unique fabric woven from the mind. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ll suddenly lose all my skills in that area. Other times I’ve worried that maybe I shouldn’t imagine things so much, in case someday I have problems figuring out what’s real and what isn’t.
It’s taken me a while to realize that much of this really is the pushback from my old nemesis, as I honor the promise I made to myself. Writing is more than a thing I do: it’s a huge piece of who I am. It’s a delight, a challenge, an obsession. I’ve always been deeply reluctant to accept myself as a writer, and to give my work and myself the respect they deserve. The depressive part of my brain still doesn’t want me to do that. It’s trying to stop me in whatever way it thinks will work, and it fights as dirty as it knows how.
But I’m stronger than it is. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found that in spite of all the things I’ve worried about, yes, I can still function. (Surprise! 😉 ) I’ve driven long distances, run errands, made meals and desserts, played the piano, taught writing workshops, done housework and yard work, and often have actually been more productive than usual, out of a need to keep busy. Ideas for my third novel have been percolating, in spite of my worries about using and trusting my imagination. I’ve read good books and laughed at episodes of Good Omens (speaking of books, if you haven’t read that one, you must). Life has gone on. Looking at it from the outside, it’s been fine.
Most recently, over the past couple of days, I’ve been able to think again about “what comes next.” I’d put that aside for a while, since getting along from one day to the next – and sometimes from one hour to the next – has been enough of a challenge. Now, though, I’m thinking about the workshops I want to do, the next book I want to write, the way my schedule will look in the fall. I’m finding myself honestly believing that in spite of everything that’s been going on, good things are on their way.
The other piece of this is that I know I’ll come out of all this stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m used to being scared of a lot of things. Now, though, I know what real fear feels like, and other fears seem a lot smaller. I’ve always been scared of driving on highways, but last week I did it every day without a twinge. Pretty much any challenge I can imagine feels like a problem that has a solution, rather than an unscalable wall. In a brutal, backhanded way, the past few weeks have given me a gift: perspective.
This is all still a work in progress. It’s easier, though, when I understand that what I’m experiencing is the growing pains associated with keeping my promise to myself. My depression doesn’t like it, but I’m doing it anyway, and everything is going to be better on the other side.
If you’re dealing with challenges like these, keep the faith. Good things are coming.
The blog is late again this week: it’s been a very busy teaching week, which has helped with my need to keep my mind busy. 😊 I’ve been leading a summer writing workshop with Writopia Lab in Washington DC. Writopia is a terrific organization that works with young writers, ages 7 through high school, and I’ve been having a great time with a group of very smart and creative teens. It’s fun to see how the next generation of storytellers is shaping up!
This week, I wanted to depart a bit from the subject of the past couple of weeks, though what I’d like to share today is still connected with the larger topic of mental health. I’m putting this out partly as a teaser, and partly as a way to motivate myself to follow through on a plan I’ve had for a long time.
As both a writer and a musician, I’m always interested in the ways in which these two art forms can dovetail, feed, and support one another. For several months now, I’ve been planning an online course which I’ll run through my website. Called “Musical Meditations,” this course is meant to support writers in particular, but also artists in general, and anyone who would find some music-inspired creative work helpful to their mindset and well-being.
In today’s post, I’m offering a sample of what the course is meant to do. It’s designed as a group of four sessions which will take place over four weeks, though participants can work at their own speed.
Each session will begin with a recording of selected piano music. Each recording will include multiple pieces, but they will all be by the same composer. Participants will first be asked to listen to the music and free-write, or journal, any response they have to it, or anything it brings to mind. This is the meditative part of the exercise: freeing the mind by letting it go wherever the music leads.
After the free-writing exercise, participants will be given information about the music they just heard. Each of the four course sessions will feature a different composer, belonging to a specific period in musical history and writing in distinctive ways. Participants will learn about the composers’ lives, the stylistic choices they made in their music, and why they wrote the types of works they did.
Participants will then be given a specific writing prompt based on the music they heard. This prompt will in some way tie into the historical period the featured music belongs to, events in the life of the composer, and/or the construction or style of the music. For writers, this prompt may help create a new idea for a story, poem, or essay. For other artists, playing around with the ideas might support work in another art form. For all participants, the prompts are meant as a fun mental exercise to stimulate creativity.
Below, I’ve included a recording of a work by Claude Debussy. Debussy (1862-1918) is a French composer belonging to the Impressionist era in music history, which covers the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist composers loved to create washes of color in their music by using rich and often dissonant harmonies, and fully exploring the ranges and capabilities of the instruments they wrote for. Their fascination with musical color parallels the interests of Impressionist painters like Monet, who worked during the same time period. Like their colleagues in music, Impressionist painters wanted to create rich palettes in their work, fully exploring the potential of colors and how they could blend in new ways.
In the Debussy recording presented here, you can hear how the composer uses the full range of the piano, and how he creates a lush palette of sound that explores beautiful and startling dissonance. This piece, “Pagodes,” is the first movement of Debussy’s three-movement suite Estampes. The title of the whole work translates literally as “woodcuts” or “etchings,” and in each of the three movements, the composer intends to evoke a specific place, as one might create an image for a picture postcard. The first movement, “Pagodes” (“Pagodas”), evokes an Eastern flavor with the sounds of chimes and gongs.
If you’d like, I invite you to listen to “Pagodes” and, either while listening or afterward, free-write or journal in response to it, letting your mind travel wherever the music leads. I often find this is very helpful for calming and centering the mind, especially in times of stress or agitation. Then I’d invite you to consider the following prompt:
Debussy creates an image of a place he loves, through the use of particular harmonies and musical sounds. Consider a place you know well and can visit in your mind. Evoke it as vividly as you can on paper, using all details that make this place special: not only what you might see or hear there, but what you might taste, touch, or smell. Describe all of this to bring this place to life. [And for writers, the following additional prompt: does this setting suggest any sketch or lead to a story or other piece of written work?]
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be putting together the full course on my website, and will post an update or two as it’s getting ready. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed today’s sample!
My new post is a little late this week: it took an extra day for me to gear up and put some thoughts in order. These past couple of weeks, but this past week in particular, have been incredibly challenging. I’m writing about it as a shout-out to all artists who deal with depression and anxiety. Solidarity, folks!
Last week I posted about traveling and some anxiety that came out of that. What I said less about, I think, was that right toward the end of the trip, I gave myself a “pep talk” about what I needed to do once we got home. Those of you who’ve been following the blog know that for the past six months or so, I’ve been looking for an agent for my novel Fourteen Stones. You also know that I’ve been trying out some new things, professionally, and generally working on building a writing career through a few different angles.
Toward the end of the trip, as I looked at getting back into “real life,” I tried to gear myself up for the next round of efforts. I knew I was likely to hear back fairly soon from at least one agent, and I had a couple of other important irons in the fire. On the blog, I’ve talked before about the effects that rejection and (perceived) failure can have on artists who deal with depression and anxiety. They can be annihilating experiences, making us call everything about our work and ourselves into question. Before the trip ended, I tried to impress on myself the importance of holding onto an ironclad belief in my work. After all, if I stop believing in it, who’s going to fight for it? I promised myself that no matter what, I would hang tough, always keep trying, and never forget the value of what I do as a writer and teacher.
And then I got home. Within the first couple of days, a handful of failures and rejections came in, one from the agent who so far has been most interested in Fourteen Stones. It was a very nice rejection, stressing the things that the agent had liked about the book, and the fact that the whole process is so subjective and that overall my work is very strong. But that, along with some other unwelcome news, created what turned into a perfect storm of panic.
For those of you who’ve dealt with severe anxiety, you know how disorienting it can be. You’re in constant fight-or-flight mode, unable to relax, burning through gallons of adrenaline a day, and maybe feeling like you can’t even totally trust your own brain. This is how I felt. While on the outside, I was functioning absolutely fine, on the inside I felt like I was hanging onto my sanity by my fingernails. Every day was exhausting.
For readers wondering if I knew to get help: don’t worry, I did. I spoke with a doctor and therapist, making sure things were okay, and finding effective ways to counter the surges of panic. Mindfulness practice is new to me, but even my first introduction to it was very helpful, letting me separate out my objective experience from the messages the panic was giving me. I took anti-anxiety remedies, got extra exercise, found constructive things to focus on – to break the cycle of “worrying about the worry” – and gave myself space to rest as much as possible. The whole experience has been tough, though. I’d expected to go into a depressive cycle after bad news. This different reaction scared me exactly because it was different.
What I realize, though, is that it’s all part of the same mental challenges I’ve always had. It’s a different and, for me, scarier side of my depression, but it ties back to all the same issues I work with every day. Putting myself and my work on the line, putting my words and ideas out into the world, is always hard for me. Now I know that my reaction to those stressors can take a couple of different forms.
This experience has shown me what kind of work I still have to do, to stay centered and grounded no matter what happens on the outside. It’s shown me that hanging onto self-belief might be even more important than I thought. At least part of the panic I experienced, I think, came from deciding that if my work “wasn’t viable” (because of rejection) then maybe I “wasn’t viable” either as a productive or functional person. Again, that message is nothing new; it just took a different form this time.
Coming out on the other side of that very difficult week, I’m feeling better. Ideas and enthusiasms are reawakening. I’m feeling like I might just be able to follow through on some plans I made before all this started, plans that got forcibly put on hold when life became such a day-to-day fight. I’m waking up again. And yes, I’m going to go back to work on the next steps in my writing career, including finding the right agent for Fourteen Stones and for my books going forward. There’s so much I want to do. Depression and anxiety aren’t going to keep me from doing it.
If you, like me, have dealt with feelings like these, you’re not alone. It gets better. Panic is a horrible experience, but there’s help available. You are strong. You are okay. You can get through this.
I’ll close this post with some good music. The Temptations had a different message with their lyrics, but right now they sum up how I’m feeling, doing better and getting back to work. “Get ready, ‘cause here I come…”
Last week, my husband and I went on vacation to north-central Pennsylvania. We were in an area known for its beautiful night skies: we rented a cabin close to Cherry Springs State Park, which is actually an international dark-sky park where amateur stargazers can take in their fill, and professional astronomers can set up telescopes for all-night viewing. While my husband and I didn’t join the stargazers at the park, we had a gorgeous view of the night sky from the backyard of our cabin. More stars than you can imagine, points of clear light spread out dazzlingly across a perfectly black sky. Some were so small and faint that they disappeared if you tried to look straight at them, but when you glanced away to the side, the spread reappeared magnificently.
Ideal stargazing means no light pollution, so by definition you have to get away from civilization. Our cabin was on a dirt road away from the highway, and the highway itself was a two-lane strip across the top of the mountain, where a passing car meant excitement. We could sit out on our porch and hear nothing but bird calls and distant sounds of sheep, cattle, and chickens from a couple of farms farther along the dirt road. On our last couple of nights, we heard coyotes calling in the woods not far away: first the eerie wolflike howl of a single adult, then another joining, and then the high excited yapping of what we guessed were puppies just learning the communication ropes. I had never experienced coyote calls in the wild before, and I have to admit they spooked me, especially when we heard them at midnight as we sat beside a campfire with the dark all around us and the stars overhead.
I learned a couple of things about myself on this trip, as we were out there mostly on our own, running into very few people even on our hikes in the area’s many state parks. For one, I learned I’m more of a city slicker than I’d like to admit. As an introvert, I don’t necessarily want to interact with people, but it seems I like to know they’re around. And secondly, as someone with anxiety, I learned how much harder it can be to control dire imaginings in the context of solitude.
“What if?” Anyone with anxiety knows that question and the chain of sub-questions it can call up in your mind. “What if something happens? What if one of us gets sick or hurt? What if we have car trouble when we’re out on the back roads and we don’t have a cell phone signal? What if it rains enough to wash a road out?” If you’re like me, you’d run through all of these questions multiple times each, along with others, and you’d try to come up with answers for all of them. You’d assess distances and travel times to the nearest towns with facilities you might need, and you’d eyeball the roads and try to guess exactly how much rain damage they might sustain before it would cause a problem, and you’d monitor your cell phone signal, and you’d imagine various hazards (possible types of injury, possible sicknesses) and how you would deal with them…and then, after a while, you’d realize you were very, very tired. Unremitting fight-or-flight does that to you.
I got frustrated with myself on this trip, more than once, because of the way my anxiety went into overdrive. The line between taking sensible precautions and catastrophizing can be narrow indeed, but I know how often I come down on the wrong side of it. It’s tough when you feel like you can’t trust what your own mind is doing. It’s tough when you feel like it’s fighting you, and you always have to try to fight back.
At home, going through my usual routines, I can keep a lid on my over-the-top feelings, rationalize them, wave them away. Out of context and outside my comfort zone, I had them shoved starkly into my face. I saw, again, what a problem they really are, and how they carry over into every aspect of my life.
Every time I started to get scared, I told myself, “There’s no demons here except the ones you brought with you. The ones in your own head.” And I asked myself, “How long are you going to let them call the shots?”
Anyone with anxiety and its corollary, depression, knows how crippling they can be. They can hold you back from doing things you want to do, things you’d like to try but aren’t sure you can succeed at, or things you normally enjoy but suddenly don’t seem as important or valuable anymore. If you do try to do something anyway, anxiety and depression can make your efforts half-baked, or they can make the whole experience so terrifying and/or miserable that you come out of it convinced you’ll never do it again. They’re the enemies inside your own head.
The funny thing is, though, I’ve come to believe that in a backwards way, those destructive messages are actually trying to keep you safe. Anxiety and depression make you honestly certain that the new things, the different things, the risky things, are much too dangerous. You shouldn’t stick your neck out that far. So the over-the-top messages come along to hold you back, wrap you up tight in what your mind accepts as a safety net.
This trip made me realize exactly how hard my mind will fight me if it thinks I’m stepping too far outside my comfort zone. It also made me confront the question I’ve sidestepped many times: “How long will you let those demons call the shots?”
In case it sounds like I didn’t have much of a vacation, I can tell you that in many ways, the trip was beautiful. I already miss the solitude of the cabin, the bird calls, the clear cool air of the mountains and the peace and strength of the woods. But I’m grateful, too, to have had such a wake-up call about what my mind will do to try to keep me safe, and I’m glad to have come home with a clearer plan for how to address that. Re-programming my mental messages, giving myself new thought patterns to hold onto, and taking medication are all parts of this plan. Now that I know exactly how far my inner “demons” will go, I’m more determined than ever not to let them keep calling the shots. There’s a way to make this better. I will make it happen.
Re-posting another “old” favorite today. Life has been hectic lately, but also, this post helped me in the writing and I wanted to share it again. The blog will be on hiatus next week. It’ll return – with a brand-new post 🙂 – on 6/25.
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…
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.”
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.
Photo credits: seascape and pastoral by Paul Faatz; Rose of Sharon by Kris Faatz
Today, mostly as a reminder and encouragement to self, I’m re-posting an old favorite from earlier this year. Apologies if you’ve read it before; but maybe, like me, you’ll find it helpful to read again. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
Last week’s post was for my fellow fiction writers. Today I’m reaching out to my fellow depressives.
The last few days have been challenging for me. This has been another one of those weeks where I’ve felt like I’m mostly treading water, and not always keeping my head above it. Professional goals seem far away, life feels like a waiting game and I’m angry with myself for not achieving more, faster. Not a particularly constructive or useful way to think, but it’s an easy trap to get sucked into.
This summer, I’m scheduled to teach a new course at our local community college. It’s a course I designed which draws on my two artistic loves: writing and music. The plan is to use classical music – its structures, historical contexts, and creators – as fodder for writing prompts and exercises. The group will have writing time, discussion time, craft talks: the usual components of a writers’ workshop, but with the added element of music as a way to get the creative juices flowing and as a new and interesting world to explore.
At the time I put the class together, it felt like a great idea. Now, though, as so often happens when I put together something of my own, I’m not so sure. It’s too different and strange. People looking for writing classes aren’t looking for something like this. Signups have been slow, I’m not sure if I’ll get enough of a quorum for the class to go ahead, and the goblins in my head are getting loud. This was a bad idea, they tell me. Your ideas tend to be bad. What were you thinking? Nobody wants what you have to offer.
When I get into this kind of place, it’s very hard to get out. If you’re like me, and depression and anxiety are a regular part of life, you know how that spiral can suck you in and drag you all the way to the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Suddenly it’s not just about one challenge, whatever the challenge is. It’s not just about that one goal you didn’t quite make, that one thing you hoped would happen and didn’t, that single bump in the road or disappointment or – dreaded word! – failure. Suddenly it’s about everything you are. The depressive voice, the one that you rationally know isn’t your friend but somehow always, always forces you to listen to it, says things like Who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing? How dare you try to create/do/be that thing! And it tells you that whatever you hope to achieve with your life or yourself, you never will.
It’s an ugly place to be in. For me, the worst part of depression is the way it can suck all the wind out of my sails so quickly. On good days, I feel fine. So fine, sometimes, that I think I’ve finally shaken that shadow, I can’t even remember why it had power over me or what that felt like. And then something will happen – the disappointment, the bump in the road, the “failure” – and I’m back at the bottom of the pit again.
What do we do? Of course there are many ways to push back against depression itself. Therapy, medication, exercise, diet, meditation: there are many ways we can build up resistance against that enemy voice in our heads, and many ways that we can work to “fill in” the pit we drop into, so that the bottom isn’t so far down, and the climb to get back out isn’t so steep. Right now, though, what I’m most focused on is the question of what to do with those overarching messages depression can give us. We know depression isn’t our friend, we know it lies, but we’re used to listening to it – we’re trained to listen to it – and it hurts us every time. So how do we counteract that?
For me, the message you don’t have anything to offer is by far the most insidious and destructive. It can take the joy and excitement out of anything I want to do, or am trying to do. It can make me feel like nothing I’m doing is worth it.
That’s where my head has been over the past few days. To work against that, I’m trying a few things:
I’m reminding myself of all the things I have managed to achieve and accomplish, in spite of what the depressive voice has spent years telling me. I can recommend this. If you’re struggling with those internal messages, you might find it helps to look at your most recent resume or bio. Not because accomplishments give you worth, but because a look at a quick summary of the things you’ve done can remind you of where you started (for me, that was ten years ago, when I first got seriously into creative writing) and how far you’ve come along your path. You can take a moment to celebrate that.
I’m holding onto my work – in this case, fiction writing – as a way to keep my head above water. Fiction writing can be a welcome escape from depression’s angry messages. When I visit one of the pieces I’m working on, whether to dive in seriously or just to sit for a while with the characters and their situations, very often I find it clears my head. Right now, I’m writing a short story and also very lightly sketching some scenes for a future book. Some of my characters are dealing with intense fears and doubts. Watching them work through those is healing for me. Most of all, though, the process of the work itself, and of engaging with these characters I love, is profoundly helpful. I recommend finding that aspect of your own work that gives you the most joy, and taking a while to sit with it.
As much as possible, I’m trying to hold onto the “larger picture” of what I hope to do with my work, both as a writer and a teacher. For me, that big picture is using my skills however I can to build bridges between people and help foster communication and understanding. Sometimes an overarching goal can be daunting, and can feel impossible, but sometimes it becomes a helpful thick rope to hold onto when the pit starts to open up under my feet. I’m trying to remember my big picture and think about how, each day, to take one small action toward it. One little bridge, or the beginnings of a bridge, in one particular situation. What is the overarching goal for your own work? How might you aim for one small step toward it today, and another tomorrow?
Depression can make it so hard for us to believe in ourselves and our work. If you’re like me, and you struggle with this shadow every day, today I’m reaching out for you. We can help each other along. We can keep our heads above water.
[Note: the illustrations in this post are the sketches I drew when building the fictional world of my second novel. Disclaimer: I’m not and never will be a visual artist. 😉 ]
Recently I read a short article about Neil Gaiman, legendary author of American Gods. In the article, his agent, Merilee Heifetz, reminisced about having met Mr. Gaiman when he was young and first getting started. He told her that he knew he could write bestselling books. Looking back on that, she said something to the effect of, “I’m glad I believed him.”
The bravura in his statement takes my breath away. I can write bestselling books. Really, who says that? Who has the guts to believe it? If it was anybody but Neil Gaiman, a bona-fide artist and one of my heroes, I’d write him off as an unbelievably arrogant jerk…or at the very least, as someone who doesn’t mind selling out his art in favor of pandering to some common denominator. But you can’t say that about Gaiman. His books take risks, break new ground, challenge readers – American Gods might be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read – and offer uncompromising and startling beauty and darkness, as well as incredible twists of imagination. And yes, they’re bestsellers.
Where am I going with this? If you’ve been following the blog, you know that lately and often, I’ve been tangling with the question of what my work is for, what it’s about. Why do we do this? And for many writers, especially fiction writers, I think there’s a constant, maybe unspoken but always present, question in our minds. That question is: why should anybody want my words?
Fiction writers, you know what I’m talking about. All artists tangle with this question – why should anybody want my work, the product of my thoughts and imagination? – but I suspect that fiction writers wrestle with it maybe longer and harder than many. After all, the words we put on the page come out of the created worlds in our minds, where we wander and experiment and dream. Some, maybe a lot, of what we write does derive in some way from our real-life experiences, but it’s couched as not-real. I’m not telling you a true story about my life, or someone else’s life, or some real problem happening right now in the real world. I’m making up a story, weaving a thread that comes only out of my own mind, and I’m asking you to catch hold of it and follow it.
What arrogance! Right? How could my imaginary worlds and people be so important? Why should anybody pay attention to them, or care that I’m creating them? One of the writers in my library workshop recently summed it up very well. Explaining why she hadn’t had time lately to work on her novel-in-progress, she told us about her various family obligations – she’s the oldest of a large group of siblings, with a core role in the family’s ability to get through the day-to-day – and said that she couldn’t ask her family to give her more time to herself to work, because she knew that her writing time was only “playing with my imaginary friends.” She’s an incredibly talented writer, and she herself knows that her talent is worth taking seriously. Even so, she described the act of writing as something barely relevant, maybe even childish, and around the table, every one of us knew exactly what she meant.
So how do you get from a mindset that questions the validity of sitting at the computer, “playing with my imaginary friends,” to a confidence and certainty that says I can write bestsellers? And, for a moment, let’s step away from the specificity of that word bestsellers, which suggests that the value of a given book depends on how many copies its publisher can shift. I’d make the case that Mr. Gaiman, as a gifted artist, wasn’t just talking about an ability to write a strong hook and fill a book up with whatever “stuff” would keep people turning the pages, like making a meal that tastes good but doesn’t really offer nourishment. Instead, I believe he was saying, My words matter. I can write books that will make a difference.
All art is an act of courage. All writing is an act of courage: and here I’m looking at you, my fellow fiction writers. How do we hang onto the idea that our words can make a difference, that the time we put into crafting our imagined worlds and characters is time well-spent?
If you’re a fiction writer, or any kind of artist, take a minute right now to think about a project you worked on that gave you satisfaction. Maybe it was a project that turned out beautifully well, that impressed you and others who saw it, that helped you see what a strong artist you really are. Or maybe it was a project you struggled with, stepped away from, came back to and wrestled with again, maybe over and over, and when you finally got to a stopping point you weren’t really sure it was done, but you had done the best you could and the process had taught you a lot. Maybe the process itself was full of joy, or maybe it was threaded with frustration and many moments where you just wanted to abandon the whole thing. But whatever project it was, whatever experience you had with it, when you look back on it, you know how much it mattered to you.
Here’s the thing. Maybe you had the chance to share that project with a lot of people, or a handful, or maybe you’re the only one who’s seen it. But remember how working on it made you feel, through joy and struggle, through the days when the words or music or images came easily, and through the days when you had to fight for the smallest milestone. No matter how it went, that project was your motive power. It got you out of bed in the morning and it filled your thoughts last thing at night. The energy you put into it suffused everything else you did: your other work, the time you spent with your family, the meals you made and shared, the errands you ran. Your life was forever different because of that project.
And because your life was different, so were the lives you touched. If you’re like me, your work can give you joy even on the worst days. That joy isn’t only confined to you. The sense of direction and purpose your work gives you can reach out far beyond the constraints of your own mind and body. Even if no one else ever sees that project, yes, it matters. Yes, it makes a difference, because it matters and makes a difference to you.
So artists, be proud of your work. Fiction writers, be proud of your imagined worlds and people. Weave your words with confidence. Every step we take along this complicated and challenging path makes us stronger and happier people, and that matters. Every piece of art we share with others gives them something new to think about, some new place to inhabit for a while, and every piece of art shares a piece of our energy and love for our work too. All of it adds up. All of it makes a difference.