“How Long Will You Let Them…”

As promised, new content on the blog today.

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.

 

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Campfire evening

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?”

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Pine Creek waterfall, at the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon

 

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.

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Hills Creek Lake, Hills Creek State Park, PA

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

 

 

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Re-post: One Equals Fifty-One

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…

ocean view 3

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

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 credits: seascape and pastoral by Paul Faatz; Rose of Sharon by Kris Faatz

 

 

Re-post: Conversation with the Zhinin

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.

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.

 

Treading Water

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.

ocean view 3

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

ocean view 1

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

Why Should Anybody Want…

[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.

Circle House layout
Creating a fictional world: schematic of a building used in Fourteen Stones

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?

Lassar Namora map
More time spent in the imagined world: rough map of the major countries in Fourteen Stones

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.

Namora map
Rough map of Namora, Fourteen Stones’s main setting and my favorite fictional place

Honor the Path

Thinking about paths today. Where have I come from? Where am I going? What has the path looked like so far, and when I look back on it, what do I think?

Artists have an unusual challenge. Because what we do is essentially original, and comes from us in a way that isn’t true of every type of work, we often have to make our own decisions about where we want to end up and how we want to get there. The “career path” of an artist isn’t as clearly defined as in other professions. In some ways, building an artistic career can feel wide open, as if there are infinite possible paths: overwhelming, in fact, in their possibility. In other ways, it can feel like there’s exactly one “right” path, and a great big roadblock in the middle of it.

For instance, writing. This road has plenty of destinations on it to want. What type of writing do we do? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, some combination? If we’re fiction writers, do we write genre work or are we strictly literary? Short fiction or long? Who’s our audience? If we’re short-story writers, do we have some bucket-list journals we’re determined to see our work in before we die, so we submit and get rejected by them over and over? (Spoiler: I’m guilty of this.) If we’re novelists, are we looking for a Big Five publisher, or an indie press, or do we want to go it on our own and keep the royalty money? How do things like publisher reputation and clout weigh against the challenges inherent in the system, and against the seemingly-infinite possible reach of the Internet? And if we get right down to it, is publishing our biggest goal at all, or are we teachers, editors, consultants, or some other type of wordcraft specialists?

All of these possibilities can feel impossible to sort out. Too many options, too many side paths that shoot off in all directions. But on the other hand, it can feel like you finally settle on a direction, you think you can see that path running straight and clear all the way to the horizon…and then a chasm opens up in the middle of it. Maybe you can’t get that book published after all. Maybe it’s too long/too short/too genre/too literary/too slow/too jumpy/too not-quite-appealing-enough. And if you can’t do that, after all the work you’ve put in, what are you going to do instead?

Ice pic 3

Roadblocks can take many forms: job we thought was going to work out, the conference we felt sure we were eligible for, the grant that really seemed like a good chance. The chasm opens up in the path, and maybe we start wondering if we were right to take this road at all. Maybe it’s led us exactly nowhere.

Especially at these times, I think, we need to take a minute to turn around and look back at the path behind us. How have we gotten to this point? What have we struggled with and triumphed over, what obstacles have we dug out or climbed around, and what beautiful moments have we taken in along the way? They’ve been there. But maybe we’ve been so focused on that ultimate goal – whatever form it took – that we forgot about the rest of it.

Lately, I’ve been taking time to think about this. If you’ve followed the blog, you know I’m often extremely goal-oriented. I don’t like mistakes and I don’t like not being able to point to a list of achievements…so writing is an interesting profession for me, to say the least. ( 😉 ) But lately, I’ve been looking back on my own unusual path, and realizing I’m pretty proud of it.

Because I didn’t start writing seriously in high school or college, I had maybe an even less prescribed career path than other writers. I didn’t have a map of the next right steps: what degrees to get and where to get them, which conferences or residencies to go to, which journals would possibly take my first short stories. Along the way, I pretty much figured out what I wanted to learn and do, and what resources might best help with that. I’m anything but self-taught, but it was pretty neat to look at the pastiche of education I cobbled together. It’s turned out to be pretty much exactly right for the kind of writer I want to be.

waterfall pic

There has been any amount of rejection and disappointment. But last week I had the pleasure of teaching two brilliant short stories (Lee K. Abbott’s “The Valley of Sin” and “The View of Me from Mars”) at my library writers’ workshop, and it was exciting and wonderful to see how those pieces inspired the group. Last week also, I checked in again with the agent who seems most serious about my novel Fourteen Stones, and learned it’ll probably be a couple of weeks longer before we have an answer. I’m not at all sure the answer will be what I’d like, but I realized that no matter what happens, Fourteen Stones is a good book that I’m proud to have written. I was even able to promise myself – and mean it – that I’ll do whatever it takes to see it published sometime. And finally, I got to thinking about how much my writing style has changed over the years and how I’m settling into this literary/fantasy/magical realism crossover stuff that I love both to write and to read. I used to think I couldn’t write that kind of thing, but I’m starting to think I might be pretty good at it.

All of which is to say: it can be hard to remember to stop and look back on the path you’ve been on. Especially in those moments when you feel like a roadblock has sprung up to keep you from the one thing you want most, and you start thinking that maybe everything you’ve done so far has just been a waste of time and trouble. But those are the moments when you most need to turn around and look back. Let yourself appreciate, all over again, everything you’ve done and accomplished and taken in along the way.

Right now, take a moment to honor the path that’s brought you to where you are. It’s worth it. You are worth it.

alta lakes colorado

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

The Work We Leave Behind

In my post last week, I looked at what it’s meant for me to come into writing “sideways,” and find my own path in the profession. This week’s post will continue and hopefully expand on that subject, while also picking up some thoughts I’d originally wanted to write about last week.

Recently, a writer passed away who was – in addition to being a master of the short-story form – a teacher and mentor to countless students, including me. Lee K. Abbott taught for many years at Ohio State University and at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, where I worked with him during two summers. During his last illness, students and colleagues posted tributes to him on Facebook. It was amazing and powerful to see how many lives he had touched, and how profoundly. Many of his students are now professional writers themselves, but one tribute in particular stood out for me. A former student of his wrote that she didn’t know if she would ever publish anything else, she wasn’t writing much anymore, but she was still teaching high-school students. She wrote that she had learned a lot about how to be a teacher from him and she hoped he’d be proud. Other people quickly replied that they knew he would be.

Reading those posts, and thinking about them, got me thinking about the question of the work we leave behind. Some fellow-writers and colleagues of Lee’s commented that his own writing hadn’t gotten the broader attention it deserved, though he was always well-respected and admired within the profession. Certainly he leaves behind a great body of work, short stories that can inspire and educate in themselves, even if they aren’t as widely read as they might be. But it seemed to me that even for a master writer, a legacy might involve more than the words on the page. And maybe the rest of the legacy can be even more important.

Brevard dawn pic

I’m used to thinking about publication as the highest goal. Every short story that makes it into a journal is a win. Getting a book out is a serious win. It’s what writers do, right? It’s what we’re for. All those hours we put in at our solitary desks, spinning worlds out of imagination and experience and love and grief and everything else: we don’t do that just for ourselves. We put the stories out in the hope – often an aching and scared hope – that they will reach out and connect with someone else.

And I’m used to thinking that the writers who really did the job, who made it work and got things right, are the ones who can point to the long list of bylines. Hopefully there are stellar reviews too, and strong sales, and maybe some grants and residencies and so forth in there for good measure. But the biggest legacy, the most important achievement, is the writing. Right?

Lee’s legacy has made me think about that again. He was a master of the craft, and he wrote in a strong and compelling voice that is uniquely his own. He knew how to take the small moments in a character’s life and turn them into immersive experiences of startling significance. He did a lot of what I’ve always thought of as “getting it right.” But he did a lot besides that, too.

When it’s time to go, what do you really want to leave behind? Sometimes we ask ourselves that in a kind of hypothetical way, not wanting to think about an “ending” as real. Endings are hard and scary. But maybe sometimes it’s worth looking that question in the face, not as something to fear, but as a challenge and a friend.

river 1

Lee’s former student who didn’t know if she would ever publish again, but who works with and, I bet, inspires kids every day, will leave something beautiful behind. Words can last a long time: after all, we’re still reading Shakespeare. But let’s say you give someone a piece of knowledge they never had before, and it fascinates them. Or let’s say you help someone accomplish something they hadn’t thought they could. Moments like that can feel small at the time, easy to forget, but in some way they’ve changed the life they entered. For the person to whom you gave that gift, things will always be different.

This past weekend, I had my last session of the school year with a group of high school students who have had creative writing workshops with me once a month. I asked them each to write down what they’d thought of the class, what they liked or would change, or anything else they wanted to share about their experience. One of them wrote, “I thought I wouldn’t like creative writing. But it’s been really fun making myself think of wild, funny stories and having other people’s stories to piggy back on…Thank you for helping me wake my brain up.” That young woman is a talented writer who has written some excellent “wild, funny stories” in class. I don’t know if she’ll keep going with writing, or do what we might call “something serious” with it, but I’m glad she had the experience and found joy in it.

Publication is and always will be a major goal for me, but I can see that a legacy can be broader than that. Whether we’re professional teachers or not, we as artists can share our experiences and our joy in our work with others. Those things can change lives as powerfully as the work itself.

The tributes to Lee’s life left me feeling great gratitude for a life so well lived. They left me thinking, gladly, about what I want to leave behind.

mississippi river

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

Sideways Writer

Apologies for the slightly later blogpost this week. I had something I especially wanted to write about, so I took some extra time to think it over…and it still ended up being too hard for now. Today’s post is the easier option. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to take on the bigger challenge.

Today’s post comes out of some thinking I did while driving home last night from a rehearsal. I don’t know if you find the same thing, but driving can be wonderfully meditative and very helpful in untangling mental knots. Especially night driving over peaceful back roads; I make a point these days to take the long route home from my Wednesday evening rehearsal, because I love the rhythm of these particular roads and how the yards and side streets slip past in the dark. It creates a good space to let the mind open up.

I was thinking about what it has meant to me to come to writing relatively late, and in a way I think of as “sideways.” Specifically, I was thinking about the experience of learning what sometimes feels like the invisible rules of the writing world, the things we’re “supposed” to want and achieve. And what it’s like to realize that not all of those things on a perhaps more typical writing path make sense to me.

Why that word “sideways”? Mostly because I didn’t start out to be a writer. It was my earliest ambition when I was a kid, but it’s easy to get away from those first ambitions. I came back to writing after finishing grad school, starting to work professionally as a musician, and getting married. Life was on a particular track and I thought I understood the whole shape and direction of it. And then I decided to get back into my old childhood interest…and, like you find in a good story, there was a plot twist.

Brevard clouds
photo by Kris Faatz

While learning about the writing craft, I’ve pretty much only done things because I wanted to. I started working on a Master of Arts in fiction writing because the coursework looked so interesting. Then, partway into that program, I decided to try a summer writing workshop because that seemed like exactly the kind of intense immersion that I needed…and afterwards, I decided to leave the MA program and save money instead for more of those summer workshops. I went to my first conference because it felt like the kind of growth that needed to happen at the time. I never had any particular strategy with any of the things I did, other than to learn as much as possible, in the ways that made the most sense on a gut level.

It hasn’t been a traditional path at all: thus, sideways. I didn’t train as a writer in college or grad school; I don’t have – and never will have – those three coveted letters “MFA.” I was a strictly-literary writer for a while, because I liked telling real-world stories and, let’s be honest, those are the kinds of stories the big-name literary journals like best. Literary writing has a certain legitimacy that genres – crime, mystery, fantasy, etc. – don’t always equal. It’s never been my favorite kind of work to read, though, and eventually it made less sense to write only that. As I’ve gotten deeper into this world, I’ve run into more invisible rules about the kinds of things we’re supposed to want and do. More often than not, they don’t mesh with the sideways writer I am.

I like to follow rules. Rules are safe and make the world look orderly and predictable. Funnily enough, though, I can be very quick to rebel against them if they seem to push me into a shape that doesn’t feel right. Rebelling is uncomfortable and scary. Sometimes I feel like I’m just being stupidly stubborn, but some piece of my internal wiring demands it anyway.

ocean view 3
photo by Paul Faatz

As I’m figuring out who I am as a writer, it feels more important to me all the time to stay on my own sideways path, doing things my own way. I don’t necessarily want to go to a conference or a workshop because it’ll look good on my resume; I want to do it because it can make me better at the craft. I don’t necessarily want to write only real-world stories: my writer-voice is settling into a blend of literary and speculative, where my characters are real people but the worlds they move in are somehow infused with magic, and I love that. I don’t necessarily want to try to create what other people might expect or want from me. As daunting as it feels, I want to find those readers who are eager for what I have to give, and on a good day, I believe those readers are out there.

It’s scary. Often, I can’t help but wonder if being so boneheadedly stubborn means I’ll never really get where I’d like to go. Sometimes, though – like last night on the quiet dark roads – I look back over how things have gone so far, and feel better. I have a long way to go, but this path is meant to be a journey for life. I have a lot to do, and some of it feels very big and far away, but I’ve learned a lot already and had some fun and done some things I’m proud of. That counts.

It’s easy to get caught up in what the world tells us to do, especially if we like to follow rules. But Bill Watterson said it very well:

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Sideways people, let’s celebrate our unique paths and know there is nobody else just like us. The world needs us the way we are. It’s challenging to make our own rules, but I do think we’ll be happier for it.

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photo by Paul Faatz

Work as Service

The waiting game has started up again this week. It was good to take a break from it, and it was also good to have an enforced break from worrying. Having a cold meant not having the energy to fret (or do much of anything else!). It’s funny how sometimes you don’t realize how chronically stressed you’ve become until the stress lifts for a while. I’m hoping that having a fuller awareness of the feelings can also help me get beyond them, even as life goes back to more familiar patterns.

It’s also interesting to notice the effects of the daily news cycles on mood, energy levels, and overall attitude. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, I had a bit of a break from all of that. Looping back into it today definitely made me notice – again – how much chronic stress I was carrying, which no doubt all of us are carrying in one way or another. It’s impossible to justify living in a bubble and not keeping up with what’s going on in the world, but at the same time, overload happens so easily. There are so many conflicts and problems, so many things to feel concerned, anxious, and angry about. The world is simply too big. How much can any one of us do to help with all the need that exists?

A brief sidebar: for the past five years, I’ve worked as a church choir director. I started the job pretty much because I was in the right place at the right time. At first it definitely was “just a job,” which I did because I had the necessary skills and needed the money, but things started to change a couple of years ago. I continue to have many questions about religion, and many concerns about the way Christianity presents in the world. I’ve had the chance, though, to work with people for whom faith leads to action and a commitment to working for social justice and the betterment of the world, especially the lives of the most vulnerable. The work has become more than “just work,” and has gotten me thinking more, all the time, about the other kinds of work I do and how they might make a difference.

ocean view 2

Last night, I went back to my increasingly-usual brainstorming about writers’ workshops and the idea of writing, and storytelling, as a type of ministry. The various rounds of thinking I’ve done about it have started to feel like going in circles, but a couple of newer ideas did join the mix.

I know how to teach craft, and I love teaching it. I love helping people to tell their own stories, fictional or real life, and make those stories as strong and compelling as possible. I love the fact that writing can help us to know, accept, and embrace our own truths. Then there’s the kind of community that evolves in workshop: the fact that people of very different backgrounds can come together to cheer, help, and encourage each other in the telling of their stories. And the fact that, in doing so, they connect with and see one another in new ways.

My biggest question is how to use all of that and do more with it. As hard as it can be for me to admit, I’m good at what I do. I want to make a living doing it; my husband and I need that, and there are things I’d like us to be able to have and do. In thinking through these things yet again last night, it struck me that the most useful way for me to approach my work is to see it as a form of service. It’s so easy to get caught up in anxiety about self-marketing, hustling, and whether you’re desirable enough and unique enough to “make it.” My brain doesn’t work that way. It does work when I ask myself how to use the skills and tools I have as instruments of healing, in a world that needs it.

ocean view 1

If anything were possible, I’d love to create some huge workshop where people from all over the world could come together, share stories, support each other, and form the kind of community that, up until now, I’ve only seen in microcosm. It’s delightful to imagine, though I can’t quite picture how anyone could create something like that. But I’m going to keep puzzling at the question.

Stories, written and shared, can make a difference in and of themselves. They can be instruments of healing in various ways: helping people to see and think about things they haven’t before, helping people to get through tough times, helping them get out of their own heads when they’re trapped in unhealthy thought patterns. Communities of storytellers take the singular power of one story and multiply it. There’s so much work to be done, and words can do a lot to create positive change in a fractured world. I’m going to figure out which piece of that work is mine to do.

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

 

Very Small Post

Today’s blogpost will be a little different. I’m still catching up after a week-long cold, which in some ways was a welcome break: it was hard to worry about things like work and publication when I pretty much just wanted to read and sleep all day. A lot of reading got done, especially several books by my hero Terry Pratchett, and I’d like to think it still counts as “writing work” when I was studying his craft with a close eye. 🙂 But a lot of other things got shelved for later, and this week is also pretty busy for us church musicians. So today I offer three very short stories which I wrote in response to photo prompts, in an exercise inspired by the wonderful journal 100 Word Story. (My short piece “Winter Birds” appears on that journal’s site as well.)

The exercise for each of the stories was to write a piece of exactly 100 words, inspired by and in some way relating to a photo prompt. I cheated slightly by not including my titles as part of the 100-word limit.

It was a fascinating exercise because flash fiction is an unfamiliar form for me. William Faulkner is credited with saying that novelists are failed short-story writers, and short-story writers are failed poets; I’d have to put flash fiction in about the same category as poetry, so as a novelist I definitely go into it with a handicap. It’s hard for me to decide what really makes a piece of flash a story as opposed to a vignette. Plus, I love verbosity, so it’s very hard for me to operate within any limit. Especially 100 words!

The photo for the first piece was a prompt provided by 100 Word Story, and as it was their photo, I haven’t included it here. It was an x-ray of ankle bones. I’ve included the other two pictures with their respective stories.

If you’d like, please use the two photos to prompt your own stories, of one hundred words or otherwise. And if you’d like to share them with me at kfaatz925@gmail.com, I’d love to read what the photos inspire for you.

Next week the blog will go back to more “regular” content. As always, thank you for reading.

 

Story #1: Cost of Light

Six weeks, the doctor says, before I’ll start to walk again. The bulk of the cast drags on my hips; the crutches set my shoulders on fire. Hiking, I looked where you pointed, at a sunlit sapling, and missed the stump hole in the trail at my feet.

I told you, once, that “always” wasn’t me. Sometime I would have walked away, someplace where you couldn’t follow. Now you call my cast your fault, but I think of light glowing through new leaves and the line of your hand, pointing.

Six weeks in exchange for light. It’s a fair price.

 

Story #2: Beautiful Aliens

In the coffeehouse, a great gray beast, shackled. Proboscis lashing, bullwhip-dangerous. Ears flapping like sails in high wind. Gawkers hand their shillings to Tom Garway at the door. The beast screams rage; they cover their ears and cower.

Overton the printer, my white master, told me Go and draw the creature. My best work. His name on the prints.

In the dim room, lost in the stink of men, the beast dreams of open sky and clean air. I dream of owning my work, my time, my name.

Great beast. We are lost together, you and I: beautiful aliens both.

elephant photo prompt
Original caption: “The great Elephant brought into England and landed August ye third 1675”

 

Story #3: Flight

A breath out of time: your husband and your daughter, who is not his daughter but has always called him Daddy, climbing into the roadster to fly.

You are mired to the ground. The Crash, they called it. Banks failing, money gone: you are poor and lost on a bright day of windswept leaves.

Your husband fights with you. You two could be poor together, he says, if you hadn’t forgotten the feeling of flight.

They get into the roadster, he and your girl, who calls him Daddy. You will see him one last time, when he brings her home.

old car photo