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

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Music, Words, and Community

A slightly later blogpost this week… I’ve been down with a cold for a few days, and my brain has been pretty scrambled. Working on getting back into gear.

cat trio sickbed
Feline nurses on duty

This week I thought I would explore the “ministry” aspect of writing again; it’s something I’m thinking about a lot. One of the fascinating, and challenging, things about this profession is that there are so many possible paths to take in it. You can want so many things: different things, sometimes conflicting things. It can be hard to organize priorities, which makes it hard in turn to focus on and reach for particular goals.

A lot of my focus over the past few months has been on publication, and figuring out how to get my second novel out into the world. The process continues to move along, slowly. Meanwhile, I keep trying to maintain a balance between the drive and desire on that side, and the fact that writing has other aspects I also want to immerse myself in. Especially on the teaching side.

I’ve written before about how fascinating the writing craft is for me, and how much I like working with other writers. Helping people tell and develop their stories feels like a type of ministry to me. Sharing stories allows us to see each other as people: I always come back to that as one of the most valuable functions of writing, and teaching writing.

Sometimes, though, it takes a little extra effort to start a story rolling and get words on the page, and sometimes it takes a little extra effort to help someone share his or her words. I ran into both of those situations recently at a particular workshop I teach, and the outcomes were exciting and encouraging. The experience got me thinking more about how music, my “other side,” could open up new and creative possibilities when it comes to helping people tell their stories.

The workshop was with Baltimore Bridges, a program for kids in Baltimore city schools. Kids start the program in junior high and continue through high school. They’re paired with adult mentors who help them think about future career options and prepare for college applications and job interviews. Once a month, the high schoolers have a day-long immersion program that focuses on college prep. As part of the day, they can choose electives to take. Creative writing is one of those.

The kids are smart and energized. They’ve impressed me again and again with their creativity and willingness to experiment. A few weeks ago, though, I was especially impressed with the way they responded to a storytelling prompt using music. It brought out a new kind of creativity and built a sense of community in the classroom that I hadn’t experienced before.

I played them a recording I’d made at home of one of my favorite pieces: a movement from the suite Estampes, by Claude Debussy. Debussy was a French composer from the Impressionist era, late 19th century into early 20th century. His music explores all the colors and tone-combinations the piano can create, and plays with dissonance in startling and lovely ways. Estampes isn’t a piece most people would be familiar with, and I was interested to hear what the kids thought of it. I asked them to listen to it and write whatever it made them think about. After we did that, I asked them to share what they’d written.

It was a group of five girls: high school freshmen, sophomores, and one junior. At first, it took a little bit of work to get them to share. They were more worried than usual that they hadn’t done the exercise “right,” even though we have a workshop policy that there’s no “wrong” way to do anything. Finally one of them jumped in, and talked about how she’d heard music like the Debussy when she was visiting an arts-focused school in Baltimore that she was thinking about applying to. Another said that the music made her imagine being outside in the woods. A third had written a beautiful, improvisatory poem about trees and sunlight and flowing water. She was especially hesitant to share hers because it was different from what the other girls had written, but when she read it, everyone was wowed.

The exercise got the students’ imaginations going, and I loved seeing what the music tapped into for them. The rest of the session felt especially inspired. The girls worked collaboratively on other prompts, weaving one another’s fictional characters into their own stories, joking around and cheering for each other, making the kind of community that I think is the best kind of writers’ workshop. At the end, I felt like we’d done something valuable and lasting.

In a time when, in the wider world, we run so often into argument and division and boundaries between people, I love the fact that storytelling does have that power to let us see one another. If collaboration and reconciliation can start with that seeing, I think writers, teachers, and writing communities can play some role in bringing people together. A small role, maybe, but a potentially powerful one. This is something I think about all the time: how can I best use the tools and abilities I have to do some good in my corner of the world?

I have some ideas, and I’m brainstorming all the time. For today, I’ll close this post with the Debussy recording I shared with my workshop. If you have a chance, give it a listen and see what it sparks in your imagination.  

[P.S. If you’d like, please share your response to the Debussy in the comments, or with me by email at kfaatz925@gmail.com.]

Good and Not-So-Good

It’s been another quiet week on the querying-and-waiting front. Part of me understands that this process simply takes a while; another part of me protests things like I didn’t think it would be this long! Waiting can be exhausting: riding the daily rollercoaster of bracing yourself for the worst, relaxing for a while, trying to plan for possible scenarios, trying to convince yourself you can deal with anything, bracing yourself again, over and over. One way or another, though, I think it does teach you patience. You don’t have a choice except to recognize – again and again, usually under protest – that you don’t have control over this process. Fighting it or arguing with it will make it no easier.

It certainly gives you a chance to learn about yourself. The past three months have made me look at some things about myself that I might not have come to grips with before. One very big thing I’ve started to see is that I don’t think I’ve ever managed to look at myself as a whole person, strengths and flaws and all. I’ve certainly never managed to be okay with that person.

I’ve written before about growing up in an environment where mistakes weren’t allowed, and where when it came to my artistic side, pretty much the best I could hope for was to be left alone to do my thing. Many of us dealt with those kinds of circumstances, growing up. (I’m not a parent and can’t imagine how hard it must be to do your best, every day, to take care of another human being who counts on you for everything. You’d have millions of opportunities to make mistakes. That kind of fear would chew me up and spit me out.) For me, one result of the way I grew up has been – as I’ve also written about before – that I have a very hard time looking my shortcomings in the face. They just can’t be there, because if they are, I’m not okay.

waterfall pic

So now, as I’m waiting and worrying, I’m tasking myself as much as possible with the job of getting on with life. That means doing the work I need to do, and that in turn means giving myself a foundation to stand on, a place where I can plant myself no matter what happens with the things I’m waiting for. I can’t do that if I’m also gearing up to attack myself for failures and shortcomings, so I have to find a way to accept both the things I am, and the things I’m not.

For instance, in the “nots” column, I’m not a housekeeper. I’m the kind of person who has to gear up for days (if not weeks) for one “big clean,” and it usually only happens under duress because someone is coming over and it would be nice if the house didn’t look like an actual biohazard. When it comes to bookkeeping, I’m not much better. Theoretically I’m good with numbers, but the idea of, for instance, maintaining spreadsheets and tables of my self-employment income makes my brain congeal into a lump of ice, so tax season means about two solid weeks of panic every year as I scramble to pull all the numbers together. And, speaking of practical skills that can be important when you’re self-employed, I’ve never learned the art of networking and, to be honest, don’t want to. Small talk stresses me out and I’ve never been good at putting the right face on and “pitching” myself as a product. I saw a shirt once with the slogan Introverts Unite! Separately, in your own homes. This is me in a nutshell.

With varying levels of seriousness, I’ve criticized myself for those shortcomings and plenty of others. Sometimes I feel like I’m not good at the things that really are important – bookkeeping, networking, general practicality – and meanwhile, the things I am good at don’t especially matter. Sometimes I’ve been so angry at myself for the failures that everything seems hopeless. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time running away from myself, or at least from those aspects of myself that I don’t want to think about. That’s exhausting too.

river 1

So I’m working, bit by bit, on accepting the parts of myself I don’t like as much. It’s very hard to wrap my head around the idea that shortcomings and limitations are okay, part of my makeup, and maybe I don’t need to fight them, hide them, pretend they don’t exist, or try to run away from them. And maybe it’s also worthwhile to think about things I can do well.

For instance:

After many years of work, I’m starting to think I’m a pretty decent writer. A few days ago, I pulled out a book project I started last year, as a study for Fourteen Stones, and then put aside. It has rough patches and problems, but it also has a spark that makes it worth digging into again. I was impressed, which when it comes to my own work, is rare indeed.

And: having with pretty much the same group of writers in workshop for about a year and a half now,  I’m starting to see the real changes and progress in their writing. They’ve also become a tight-knit, supportive community, challenging one another to grow. That makes me proud in a way I’ve never really experienced before.

Also: the craft itself is a constant delight and fascination. I love figuring out what makes “good” writing so compelling and powerful, and I love problem-solving in writing that needs work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of fascination about any other subject. While you can definitely argue – as I have, to myself, many times – that it’s not the most practical subject to love, I’m glad to taste that kind of excitement.

For better or worse, this is how I am. Every day, as the waiting-rollercoaster carries me along on its ups and downs, I’m trying to hold onto this more candid, more honest view of myself, and decide that it’s all right. That it’s enough of a foundation to get me through whatever is coming.

I know I’m not the only one. So many of us struggle with the question of being “good enough,” forgiving ourselves for our mistakes and all the things we are or aren’t. It’s especially hard for those of us who are artists, who put ourselves on the line every day with the work that means the most to us, that carries a part of ourselves with it as we send it off into the world.

Maybe it isn’t worth trying to hide, or ignore, or run away from the things about ourselves that we don’t like as much. If we can forgive ourselves, take ourselves as the people we are, we’ll be all the stronger for it. And maybe in some small way, we can make the rest of the world stronger too.

waterfall

Photos by Paul Faatz

Work that Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Kris Faatz

 

Success?

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

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

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

ocean view 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rainbow

Photos by Paul Faatz

Reaching For the New

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

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

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

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

photo challenge Irises
photo by Kris Faatz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wisconsin 2012 wildflowers
photo by Paul Faatz

Need to Know?

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

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

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

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

river 1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pastoral

Photos by Paul Faatz

One Equals Fifty-One

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

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

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

“A lot less,” the big god answers.

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

“It’s the same.”

Hold onto that thought…

ocean view 3
photo by Paul Faatz

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

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

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

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

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

“Is one less than fifty-one?”

“It’s the same.”

pastoral
photo by Paul Faatz

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

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

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

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

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

“Is one less than fifty-one?”

“It’s the same.”

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

I am also one.

And that matters.

rose of sharon
photo by Kris Faatz

Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

waterfall pic

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

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

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

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

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

Ice pic 3

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

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

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

Brevard dawn pic

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

Experiments in Dream-Space

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

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

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

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

waterfall

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

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

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

harbor

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

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

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

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

 

All photos by Paul Faatz