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

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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

Conversation with the Zhinin

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.

 

Doing the Work

Thinking about challenging times, here on the blog. Last week I wrote about the struggle many artists face as they try to keep doing their work after, maybe, learning when they were young that they were wrong to be “that kind of person.” A lot of us did absorb that message: if we were writers, musicians, painters, actors, sculptors, we ought to abandon those burgeoning dreams in favor of more “practical,” more “valuable” pursuits.

Those messages cost many of us a lot of heartache, and maybe a lot of time that feels wasted after we tried to conform to what other people wanted from us. In college, I majored in engineering along with music, and tried to make a go of that first field because it was practical, because “more women should be engineers,” because “you’re so good at math and science; it would be a waste not to use that.” I spent a long time forgetting who I was and what I hoped for, as I tried to re-shape myself according to someone else’s desires and plans. Finally, I couldn’t keep doing it anymore.

Admitting who I was, and changing my direction, in many ways felt like a failure. I was being stubborn. I was being bad. I was wasting my God-given abilities in those male-dominated fields and letting go of my chance to change the world as a groundbreaking female scientist. I was dooming myself to poverty and a life of driveling my time away doing unnecessary things no one would care about. The world doesn’t need artists. The world needs people who do real work.

One of the things professional artists of every stripe have in common is that we don’t do this work just because we happen to feel like it. It’s a tough road, for sure. It demands absolute commitment. Those of us who end up on it get there because it’s not just what we do: it’s who we are. We don’t have the choice to walk away from it, because that means abandoning ourselves.

mississippi river

Those of us who grew up with those “change yourself” messages have to re-learn a lot. We have to remind ourselves, over and over, that art does matter. That we are not “bad” for doing it, and that we don’t have to be ashamed of finding our souls again and letting ourselves build a life that matters to us.

Last week, I also talked about how rejection affects all artists, and especially those of us with internal “programming” like the kind I have. Rejection is way more common in this life than acceptance and success, simply because you have to try and try and try again until you find the right recipient for your work. (Those right people are out there, but there are a lot of people to sift through.) Rejection can sometimes feel like punishment. “See? You shouldn’t be doing this ridiculous thing. You’re being bad.” The pain of rejection can feel like punishment for trying.

 

Right now, I’m doing all I can to push back against that reflexive thinking. It’s not easy. I’ve learned to brush off rejections when I submit a short story to journals: sure, it’s disappointing, but I’ve gotten so many of those that it really doesn’t sting much anymore. A book is a bigger deal. It’s much more of my life and effort and soul on the page, and considerably higher stakes in terms of eventual publication. It’s hard not to really, really want a certain outcome. When that outcome doesn’t happen, it’s hard not to crash into despair and the self-talk where I believe the universe is crapping on my head for trying to be this crazy thing called a professional writer.

Waiting to hear back about submitted work can feel like being on perpetual high alert. You can’t help imagining that outcome you really, really want, and thinking how happy you’d be if you got it. Unfortunately, that means that if you get bad news, you’re likely to crash. And if you get no news, you’re still likely to crash, because you keep psyching yourself up to deal with whatever outcome presents itself.

It’s exhausting. For that reason, and because I can’t do anything to change the nature of the process, I’m trying to teach myself to let go of control. If I’m willing to believe – often a very big if – that I am right to go after this particular writing life, then I have to believe that rejection doesn’t mean anyone is crapping on me or deliberately trying to hurt and punish me for trying for the things I care about. And then, in turn, I have to trust that the outcomes will be what they need to be. Maybe, right now, I don’t get the exact thing that I want: the thing I can imagine so clearly I can practically touch it. Maybe I get something else instead. Maybe that second thing is better. In my experience, so far, that second thing has always been better.

waterfall

The point is that I can’t control every outcome, and it’s not healthy to spend all my time on high alert. Yes, I want proof that I’m right to do what I’m doing. But if I look at everything that’s happened, so far, over the past decade or so as I’ve built a writing life, I have to see that a lot of things did work out. Maybe they didn’t look the way I expected, but they were the right things. I have to believe that the right things will keep happening, whether or not they’re what I think I want.

I also have to remember why I’m doing this work. A friend recently sent me an excerpt of Anne Lamott’s book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, in which Lamott takes a chapter to talk about her experiences as a writer. She’s pretty candid, reminding readers that if we get into writing because we want admiration or validation, we’d be better off doing something else. I needed to hear that message. I needed to remember that I don’t do this because publication – or any other kind of public recognition – is going to fix my life, suddenly give me the self-esteem I’m missing, make everything right.

I do the work because the work matters, and there’s so much more to it than this submission or that submission. There’s the chance to tell the stories that fascinate me, with the characters I fall in love with and who demand my attention until I bring them to life on the page. There’s also the chance to work with other writers, help other people shape their stories, and work day after day with this challenging and fascinating craft. There’s nothing else like it in the world. For me, writing is an act of joy, and also an act of connection. I want to use the gifts I have to help other people use their own gifts. That’s why I do this. The rest of it matters so much less than I sometimes think.

The universe doesn’t punish us for being who we are. As artists, we need to trust that we have our gifts for a reason. Trust that our work is good. Trust that things will work out the way they need to: because, at core, we are meant to do this work. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have the drive and hunger and joy in it. People’s lives are better because we are out there doing the work that needs us. We can’t let anything hold us back.
rose of sharon

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

Being Loved “Because”

The blog reawakens after a long sleep… Hoping this is a return to some regular posts. Today’s post falls under the header of Random Thoughts and Reflections for 2019. If you’re like me, an artist who needs some encouragement in going about your work, I hope this helps.

As artists and creative people, some of us were lucky to grow up in supportive, understanding families who embraced our abilities and encouraged us to dive into the kind of work we loved. An environment like that would teach us to value our gifts, and know that, if we wanted to be professional artists, we would have things to figure out (money!), but we would probably believe we could work through problems and find solutions. We’d believe in our own worth.

Others of us grew up in very different environments. We had families who didn’t understand what we did, didn’t support it, and/or bought fully into the “starving artist” model that says that art simply isn’t useful, and professional artists are doomed to empty bank accounts and lapsed rent payments. We were taught that art wasn’t viable. Maybe it was fun as a pastime, but we should never consider doing it professionally. If we did, we were doomed to fail: and in doing so, we would disappoint, shame, and disgust the people we most wanted to have love and accept us.

ocean view 2

Those of us who grew up in that second kind of environment, and who became artists anyway, go into our work under heavy handicaps. All artists know the pain – sometimes excruciating – of putting our work “out there” and facing rejection. The story that the journal sends back, the book that the agent doesn’t want, the piece of creative work that gets nowhere in the competition: for every artist, everywhere, all of those incidents are small but potent doses of heartbreak. We deal with them the way we have to. We pick ourselves up and try again, knowing that rejection is part of this work and we have to face it.

We do this work because we can’t do any other and still be true to ourselves. But for those of us who grew up in homes where we got the message that being an artist is wrong, those “failures” confirm our view that we are wrong to be who we are. We ought to change. Remake ourselves. Be something practical. Fit in.

That is where the dangerous thinking starts. Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to understand exactly how deep this kind of thinking runs in my own mind. Whether I’m consciously aware of it or not, every rejection makes me question my right to be myself. It’s not just about the work. However much I tell myself none of these incidents are personal, the people deciding to take my work or pass on it don’t even know me, there’s a part of me that still believes that the universe itself might be passing judgment on me for being what I am. Maybe I’m being told, by the powers-that-be, that the messages I took in years ago were right. I am wrong to be an artist. I am bad. Therefore, I will be punished. Failing at the things I try, being denied the things I hope for, getting those doses of heartbreak we all know too well, is part of that punishment. Those things are meant to force me to change who I am and become something else.

Sometimes I’ve tried to change who I am. It’s never worked and has only deepened depression and lowered productivity. So instead, I’m trying to teach myself to think a different way.

For all of us who knew what it was like to be told we were wrong to be artists, and who work under that handicap every day, here’s something to think about:

If you were anything like me, the best you could hope for was to be left alone to practice your art. You didn’t expect support or affirmation. When push came to shove, you were in it on your own, and you knew those around you didn’t like what you were doing. Sometimes you ached at how lonely that was, how hard it was to keep doing the work with no one to cheer for you, but you could do it.

ocean view 3

And maybe, sometimes, you got the impression that yes, people cared about you, maybe they even loved you, but they did it in spite of who you were. “Okay, you’re this thing we don’t understand, we wish you were something different, a different kind of person, but we can overlook that failing.” (At least most of the time.) “We’ll pretend it’s not true, and we’ll love you anyway.”

[For now, we’ll put aside the question of whether that really counts as love. People do the best they can, another thing I’m coming to realize.]

BUT. What if, here and now, you and I and all other artists dealing with that history could imagine a life in which we are not ignored, not loved “in spite of,” but loved because of what we do? If those very things that make us different – our creativity, our flashes of inspiration, our odd schedules, the fact that we aren’t pegs that fit into the world’s predictable holes – sit at the core of our value?

I’ve come to realize how deeply I believed in that judgment-from-the-universe I mentioned earlier. Now I’m training myself to at least consider the what if. What if, as a writer and musician, as this artist who doesn’t fit any predictable mold and is stubborn enough to insist on doing things her own way, I am exactly who I need to be? What if I am occupying exactly the place I am supposed to hold in the universe, and the powers-that-be both need and want me to be there?

ocean view 1

If you experiment with this kind of thinking, it leads to different conclusions. If I believe that I am exactly who I am supposed to be, and that in fact I am valuable because of all of these things that make me different and unusual and the artist I am, then I can believe that the roadblocks and heartbreaks aren’t punishment. I can believe that I’m not being told to stop trying; in fact, I can believe in a power that sympathizes with the hurt and cheers for me when I pick myself up and keep going. The doses of pain will still show up: it’s in the nature of the work, but they really aren’t personal. They’re the same part of the process we all face.

For some of you, this healthier kind of thinking might seem natural and obvious. I hope someday it will seem that way to me too. It’s not easy for me to accept a different view of things; sometimes it even feels safer to hold onto my old thought patterns, because then hurt and failure are no more than I expect. I can see, though, that doing my work fully, and making the life I want to have, can be immeasurably easier if I can imagine myself valuable and beloved because, not in spite.

If you have the same thought patterns I do, let’s both agree to try imagining something else. Today, you are enough. You are exactly who you need to be. You are valued and loved for being the person, and the artist, you are.

pastoral

All photos by Paul Faatz

 

Zen for Ten 36: Beethoven and Lamb

Welcome back to the blog! This week’s post is a little different. I love featuring the work of my literary-fiction colleagues, and look forward to going back to that for our next post, but this week we’re taking a step into comic fantasy.

 

Along with Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore is one of my go-to writers. His books are breathtakingly bizarre, funny, complex, and potent in the best ways. I love writers who can make me laugh and make me think. With Moore, the “thinking” part often comes as an unexpected punch in the gut after you’ve spent a page or so cracking up. It’s a masterful balancing act and I love it.

Lamb, which I’m featuring in this week’s post, is probably my single favorite Moore book (if I had to pick one). When I first ran across it, I wasn’t sure if I should take a look. It’s a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of “Levi who is called Biff,” the apostle whose voice got left out of the Gospels, and who introduces himself as “Joshua’s” (Christ’s) best friend. I was baptized Catholic, grew up Presbyterian, and currently work as a church choir director. Religion and I have had a rather complex relationship over the years, but when I first picked up Lamb, I wasn’t at all sure what I’d think of an irreverent retelling of the Bible stories I grew up with.

The experience turned out to be surprising. Lamb is full of the humor that characterizes Moore, but in spite of – and often because of – the many laughs in it, it’s powerful, often beautiful, and startlingly resonant. Joshua of Nazareth emerges as an authentic, compelling, conflicted character. When I was growing up, I heard the Passion story countless times, but Moore’s retelling of it hit me viscerally, in a way I’d never experienced before.

Lamb is my current inspiration- and encouragement-source as I (try to) dig into a fantasy project of my own. The excerpts in the video below are taken from Part IV, in which Joshua and Biff have gone to India to meet Melchior, one of the magi who followed the star to Bethlehem. Joshua is looking for guidance on how to be the Messiah, and Biff (who is a lot less spiritually minded) is trying not to get in the way too much. I love this part for the dialogues between Joshua and Biff and for that particular mix of humor and wisdom that makes this book what it is.

I’ve paired the reading with the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 1. The structure of the music complements the structure of the dialogues, and Beethoven’s mood here is gentle and serious but not too solemn. I’d thought it might be hard to pick a musical pairing for this particular writing, but the words and music ended up dovetailing perfectly. (I also thought that Beethoven, who had a sense of humor of his own, would have appreciated it.)

Please enjoy the video. As always, thank you for visiting the blog!

 

beethoven lamb
sighted on my piano

 

Writers! Would you like to contribute your work for the Storytelling and Sound series? (You provide the words, I provide the live reading and the music.) Email me at kris@krisfaatz.com for info.

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Storytelling and Sound fans: if you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to check out music-inspired To Love A Stranger!