Teaser 2

Thanks for visiting, as always! Today I’m sharing another teaser from a new project I’m working on: a collection of very short, fable-like stories about the experiences artists face. As a short intro, Vera is an artist, in any discipline you’d like to imagine – whatever resonates most with you. Lia is one of her three feline-shaped muses.

If you like this excerpt, you can read another in my post here.

**

It’s raining today, a steady thin drizzle. Vera sits under a spreading tree, leaning back against its broad trunk. The leaves make a green cave to shelter her. Now and then, collected moisture drips off a branch here or there, splashing softly on the grass.

Vera would like to be walking again. Sometimes she welcomes the time to think and be quiet, but right now isn’t one of those times. She’s been thinking too much lately about her art. Sometimes nothing about it seems right. The quieter her mind is, the more she sees problems and mistakes, and the faster they grow.

It’s a little too wet to walk, though. Aurelia-who-is-called-Lia, sitting in the grass beside her, agrees.

“Wait for the sun to come out,” Lia says. She lifts a dainty front paw to her mouth and smooths a few hairs down with her tongue. “We should only walk when it’s nice. Much more comfortable.”

Lia is small and striking. Most of her fur is black, but with enough ginger and beige mixed in to give it a marbled look. One hind leg is orange with tabby striping. Her paws and chest are white. In sunlight, her fur has the sheen of velvet.

Vera fidgets. “When is it going to get nice again?”

Lia cocks her head. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

Vera doesn’t answer. She drums her fingers restlessly on her knee, not looking at Lia, but she can feel the grass-green eyes studying her.

Lia gets up and comes over. She climbs into Vera’s lap, pushing her uneasy fingers aside. Her claws come out, just enough to prick Vera’s leg and get her attention.

“Hey,” Lia says. “Don’t ignore me.”

Vera looks down into the small face. Lia’s ears are mostly black, mottled with a little bit of orange, but she has a mask of ginger around her eyes and a splash of white and beige on her nose. Vera can’t help smiling. “I can’t ignore you,” she says. “You won’t let me.”

Lia arches her back, purring. “That’s right. I get attention when I want.”

Vera runs her hand down Lia’s sleek side, feeling the texture of the glossy fur. The purr is a noisy rumble now as Lia presses against Vera’s hand. Then the purring stops and Lia sits back on her haunches.

“You know you’re just the way you need to be,” she says.

Vera shakes her head. She’s used to the way Lia thinks. “Maybe you are,” she says.

“Maybe?” Lia’s green eyes go wide. “There’s no maybe about it.” She lifts her chin proudly and swishes her tail, displaying the tiny white point on its tip. “Look at me,” she says. “How could anyone be prettier?”

She’s right, of course. Nobody else could look quite like her, with her mix of colors and the funny patches on her face that are somehow perfect. Vera rubs the top of the small round head. “It’s true,” she agrees. “Nobody can match you.”

Lia looks satisfied to the point of smug. “Same for you.”

Vera thinks of a lot of things she could say about that. The whole world can see Lia as lovely and delightful; Lia knows it’s her due, and anyone who doesn’t agree isn’t worth her worry. But Vera is different.

Lia rubs her face against Vera’s hand. “You’re mine,” she says. “That’s all you need to know.”

Because Lia doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t worth it. Vera can hear that, loud and clear. She’s still not totally sure she believes it, but she smiles.

Lia curls up in her lap. The two of them sit quiet together, listening to the soft rain.

Alafair portrait
Alafair, aka Smidgen, the original Lia

 

Alafair nap
She’s not very fetching…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buried Meteor

Apologies for the lack of post last week. After Tuesday went by, I thought maybe Wednesday or Thursday I would put up a late one, but then it was the end of the week and I still hadn’t gotten my act together. 😉

But I’m glad I waited, because this week’s post probably needed the extra “mental digestion” time. This week I’m thinking about my creative work: ways I’ve avoided it, and why I’ve had such a hard time getting back to it after a rough summer.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know the summer was very challenging for me, involving lots of anxiety and panic. Naturally, doing creative work under those circumstances gets to be difficult (“I can’t sit down long enough! I can’t concentrate! I can’t…”). With the start of fall, I’d hoped and planned that things would get better. Time had passed since a couple of the events that kicked off the panic. I was on a new med. Surely, I thought, come September I’d be able to turn things around and get back to my “normal” self.

The process of re-normalizing has been a lot slower than I’d hoped. Over the summer, I spent a lot of time avoiding any thoughts of my writing or what I want to do with it. More recently, I’ve been thinking about it again, and sometimes actually getting some words on the page…but it always seems like the anxiety is hovering in the background, ready to knock me down again. You’re trying that? You must be crazy. And then I’ll find something else to do instead: laundry, random errands, unnecessary baking (which has its benefits, I admit), or any other kind of busy work to get away from what scares me.

river 1

Avoidance is normal and part of the artistic life. We all know what it’s like to feel intimidated by that project we want to work on, but aren’t sure we can really do “well enough.” For me, though, it’s gone a little deeper than the usual resistance I know. It’s like when you’re clearing a piece of ground in your yard to put in a garden. You dig down and your shovel hits a stone that doesn’t look like much at first, so you try to find the edge of it so you can flip it out of the hole…but you keep digging, and digging, and your shovel keeps hitting it, and it turns out this thing is huge. It’s as if there’s a buried meteor down there, and you can’t put your garden in on top of it, and you don’t know how you’re going to get it out.

In my case,  the buried meteor – the biggest source of my resistance to digging into my creative work, getting back to that so-important piece of life – is my own view of myself. I’ve always known I had some, let’s call them self-esteem challenges. The past few months have shown me exactly how big they are.

waterfall pic

If you were reading the blog during the summer, you know that in June, I had a string of tough writing-related news that culminated in a rejection of my novel Fourteen Stones by an agent we’ll call Agent X. I’d liked Agent X a lot; they’d spent quite a bit of time with the book, I knew that folks on their team really liked it, and they’d been respectful and communicative throughout the submission and review process. Unfortunately, as can easily happen in this process, the book turned out to be not quite the right fit for them. Instead of saying to myself, “Hey, you got really close with Agent X, they were really nice and they did like the book a lot, so you just need to keep trying and you’ll find the right agent for you,” I let my disappointment turn into crashing shame. All the time I’d spent working on Fourteen Stones suddenly seemed like a total waste. It was no good. I was no good.

This might seem unreasonable if you’re not familiar with the process, and especially if you don’t happen to look at the world through the truth-distorting lens of anxiety and depression. Even I knew it was over the top, but I couldn’t seem to control it. I spent the rest of the summer and well into the fall wondering what was wrong with me, why my head felt so messed up, not knowing how I could ever get myself back to a productive place. Sometimes I got more angry than scared, and sometimes – despite how nice they’d been – I got really pissed at Agent X. More than once I wanted to sit down and write them a furious email about how my whole summer had been ruined, four months of my life I’d never see again, because they just couldn’t give me the answer I wanted and it wasn’t fair!

Of course this isn’t an ideal career move. 😉 More importantly, though, very lately I’ve come to understand something else: really understand it, rather than just being aware of it. Of course it isn’t Agent X’s fault that my book wasn’t the right match for them. And it wasn’t their fault that I had so much trouble with that rejection: that I let it take me into such a bad place, and that I then stayed there. The problem, which I knew in my head but had never internalized, was that I was giving away my power.

Let’s say Agent X had wanted the book. I’d have been thrilled, of course. It would have felt like a huge validation…and that’s exactly the problem. I would have decided that Fourteen Stones had been worth every hour I’d spent on it. Not because I’d created something that never existed before; not because that creation was exciting and beautiful and I was proud of it; not because all those hours of work on it had been filled with delight and joy. Fourteen Stones would have had worth, in my eyes, not because of what knew about it, but only because someone else found it acceptable. 

Dangerous, right? And that’s my buried meteor: the belief, lodged somewhere deep in my hindbrain, that I have no worth until someone else gives it to me. The more I dig at it, the more I understand how that belief has affected everything I do.

Having that deeply-internalized self-image has meant that I’m reluctant to take risks. I’m scared to put my work out there, so even though I do it, I do it in a small and limited way. I’m always waiting for rejection, not because it’s statistically likely in this business – which it is – but because I believe that’s what I deserve. When it comes, I take that as a confirmation of my belief that I’m “not good enough.” I’m scared to start new projects because I’m firmly convinced I can’t succeed. And then I avoid work entirely because I’m scared of being scared.

Agent X’s rejection – though I don’t like to admit it 😉 – was actually a gift. I just turned forty years old a few weeks ago, and I’m finally starting to get a good look at the buried meteor that’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I want to build a garden in that spot. I know it can be beautiful, but that rock has to come out first.

It’ll take a lot of work. It’s hard for me to imagine really dragging it out into the light and getting rid of it. I can see it, though, and I know what needs to happen next. That’s a start.

waterfall

 

 

 

Teaser

Thanks for visiting, as always! This week I’ve started a new project, and thought I’d post a short teaser from it here. The very short story below is going to be part of a larger collection, all dealing with the experiences and challenges artists face.

Quick explanatory note: Vera is an artist; her discipline is whatever you’d like to imagine, whatever resonates most with you. Twist is one of her three feline-shaped muses.

Hope you enjoy!

**

Vera sighs. For a while now, she’s been walking along her path, carrying her current project. She has carried it sometimes on her back, sometimes in her arms, with the same care and delight she would feel in carrying a child. For a while, her path has been straight and smooth. Sunlight has brightened it every day. The art she carries has seemed to have no weight at all. Having it with her has only filled her with more energy and strength, as if taking care of this precious burden means she can cover any distance and do anything.

Today, though, the path seems steeper. Loose rocks and gravel have turned up underfoot and Vera can feel them, sharp under her shoes. She’s tripped a couple of times on tree roots she didn’t see. The weight in her arms feels much heavier, dragging at her shoulders, but when she tries putting it on her back, it bows her down until she can barely put one foot in front of the other.

Finally she unships it and sets it down on the grass at the edge of the path. She sits down next to it, looking at it as if maybe it will get up and start walking on its own. Maybe it can lug itself along for a little while. Today she doesn’t have a whole lot more to give.

Twist saunters out of the grass. When they’re walking together, Vera is used to him coming and going however he wants. He is always around, but the sameness of the path can bore him when the air is full of scents and sounds.

He rubs his long body against Vera’s knee. “Why are we stopping?” he asks.

“I’m tired,” Vera says. She looks at the art, lying there mute in the grass. “I don’t know, Twist. What am I doing with this, anyway?”

The sun is out again today, but this time its rays come through a bank of cloud, creating a white glare. In the unfriendly light, Vera doesn’t think the art looks as beautiful or appealing as it used to. In fact, in this moment, she can’t really imagine picking it up again. Why should she, when it’s so heavy? What if it’s not worth dragging along anyway?

Twist sidles over to the art and sniffs it. He prods it lightly with a paw. Finally he rubs against it the same way he did with Vera. Mine, the gesture says.

He looks up at her. His eyes are green at the pupil, changing to gold at the edge of the iris, and they’re set wide apart on either side of his broad nose. Their heavy lids often make him look half-sleepy, but there’s no sleepiness in the look he gives her now.

“It’s yours,” he points out.

Vera sighs again. She runs her hand along his back. His fur is soft, but she can feel the texture of the individual hairs.

“I don’t know,” she says again. “It’s not very good, is it?”

Twist sniffs. “Good, not good. Who knows?”

“If I could tell for sure,” Vera says. The harsh sun-through-clouds glare really does make the art look ugly, she thinks. All the time she’s spent carrying it up to now, she never noticed how unattractive it really was. Or how heavy. She probably wasted a lot of effort just getting it this far.

Twist stretches out on the grass beside her. He can get comfortable anywhere, in no time at all. He turns his head to look up at her. From this perspective, his face is upside down.

“How can you tell if it’s good,” he asks, “when it’s not done yet? If I’m chasing a mouse, I don’t know if it’ll taste good until I catch it.”

“Twist!” Vera scolds. “That’s disgusting.” He’s never caught a mouse, and she never wants to see him do it, but he likes her to know he could be a great hunter if he wanted. She believes it. He’s fast and smart.

Twist rolls over onto his back and folds his front paws under his chin. “Sorry.”

Vera can’t help laughing. In one quick movement, Twist is back on his feet, sniffing at the art. “Mice smell good,” he tells her. “This does too.”

Vera laughs again. “Really?”

The green-and-gold eyes find hers. “Yes. I think you should chase your mouse a little more.” Twist stretches, pushing his big white front paws into the grass. “Besides, it’s awfully quiet around here, isn’t it? Let’s go find some excitement.”

Vera doesn’t really want to pick up the art again, but when Twist rubs against her leg, pushier now, she knows she doesn’t have a choice. She gets up and hoists the weight back into her arms.

Somehow it doesn’t seem quite as heavy as it did before. Twist sets off along the path, picking his way between loose stones, his long tail held cheerfully high. Cradling her work, Vera follows.

Fergus not on the table (2)
The original Twist: my writing buddy Fergus
Fergus nap bed
Proper snoozing technique: a demo

Why Imagine?

This one is for my fellow artists, especially the writers…

A number of years ago now, I read an article by a writer whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t remember. In the article, this writer was talking about the experience of getting her first book published, and all the challenges and setbacks that finally led up to that accomplishment. Specifically, she talked about how it happened a lot later than she’d initially hoped when she was an up-and-coming twenty-something. She’d had an earlier first book, which had landed her an agent, but after the usual period of effort, her agent hadn’t been able to sell that book. This experience sent the writer into a tailspin of despair. The rejections and the loss of hope were so difficult that she had to walk away from writing for six years.

When I read this, I was somewhere in the middle of my own first-book trajectory, trying to figure out what to do with To Love A Stranger and what might ever happen to it. (I still didn’t know a whole lot about the craft, and my efforts from that time would definitely qualify as “sins of my youth.”) My response to this lucky published writer wasn’t very sympathetic. You quit writing for six years? How could you do that?! I decided that anybody who could turn their back on the craft for that length of time just wasn’t very serious about it. I saw that writer’s exodus as a kind of tantrum, an “I didn’t get what I want, so I quit!” fit of bad behavior.

Now, though, with the perspective of a few more years and a lot more rejections, disappointment, and loss of hope of my own, I have to say: I get it, sister. I really do.

irvine field view

We writers and artists give ourselves an uphill task every day. We’re creating work that doesn’t exist until our imaginations yield it up and we weave it into something that holds together, something that captures some fraction of the beauty or message or thrill we hoped for when we started. We do it knowing that no work will ever seem perfect to us, and we often have to struggle against our own inertia and the constant intimidation of that “ideal product” that we know we’ll never create. And for a lot of us, the investment of so much time and energy into something so uncertain – will I ever get a return on this? will people like it? will it (maybe, possibly, ever) sell? – feels like a risk we maybe can’t afford.

I felt this way, profoundly, about my second novel Fourteen Stones. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about the anxiety that set in after a particularly difficult rejection connected with that book. What I hadn’t expected after the rejection, though, was the experience of starting to attack my own imagination and, quite literally, my ability to write. It was as if my brain decided that I shouldn’t imagine things, shouldn’t write, shouldn’t take pleasure in or even be able to do something that had given me so much satisfaction…when, after all, the great gamble on that novel hadn’t paid off the way I’d hoped it would.

We artists tell ourselves we have to be tough, resilient. We tell ourselves we have to get up and keep fighting every time rejection and setbacks knock us into the dust. What I experienced over this past summer made me question whether – assuming I still could manage to do the work I loved – I should still try. Because, after all, if I let rejection knock me down and hold me down for so long, if I “let myself” feel so terrible about it and “let it” make me unable to imagine, create, or put my ideas on the page: if all those things were true, then maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this work after all.

That other writer might have experienced exactly this when she walked away from her work for years. Or maybe her experience was a little different, but in any case, I now understand why someone would make the choice she did. I understand how it feels to question the value of your work, question the reason and worth behind investing so much in the products of the imagination. Why dream? Why create?

I continue to struggle with this, months later. Once anxiety gets its claws in, it doesn’t want to let go. Working around it every day, one step at a time, the single biggest thing I’ve learned so far is that I must not give up on the imagination.

prettyboy view

Why do we artists do what we do? Why dream, why create, when there’s so much risk, and when the rewards sometimes seem so few, transient, and so very far between?

Because what we create would not exist without us. Because only we can do the work we do. No one else could write my book. No one else could paint your painting, or compose your music, or tell your part of the story that is an irreplaceable piece of the greater story of the world. And – maybe even more importantly – because no change is possible without imagination. Artists dare to dream about ideals. We dare to see people and the world differently. We dare to believe that the things we think, feel, and create in our work can reach others, and that as we reach out in the way only we can, we can create change in the world.

It’s a crazy dream, right? It can feel huge and scary and impossible, but the fact is, our work has power. When someone takes in something we’ve created, they’ll experience something they’ll never find anywhere else. They can’t find it anywhere else, because it could only have come from us. And it starts with the work of our imaginations.

So if this game has knocked you down: believe me, I understand. If you need a break from it for a while, I know exactly how that is. But in the long run, please don’t let it make you quit. Now more than ever, we need to see how things could be. We need the dreams and creations only you can bring to the overarching story of the world.

rocky point view

How Can I Help?

Apologies for the longer-than-expected silence on the blog. If you’ve been following it, you know it’s been a pretty challenging summer. As the fall routine starts up again, I’m planning to get back to regular posts, as much as possible!

This week’s post will be rather short, and mostly consists of a question (more on that below). This summer, as I’ve been dealing with an (extraordinarily, frustratingly, intensely) annoying amount of anxiety, I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience that artists, in particular, can have with this disorder and with its flip side, depression. Here on the blog, I’ve posted before about how artists, especially those who routinely put their work out on display in the world, encounter a lot of challenges that can trigger and exacerbate any mental health situations we might be dealing with. Criticism (particularly the blanket, non-useful kind) and rejection hit our buttons and can make it hard to continue our work, and sometimes even to get out of bed in the morning. (Been there.)

We’re lucky to live in a time when mental health care and resources are available, although many mental health conditions are still improperly understood and all-too-often stigmatized. It can be hard to admit that you have a chronic condition that makes life harder than you’d like. You can feel that you’re just not trying enough, or you’re not being positive enough, or you really don’t want anyone to know how you actually feel because it seems unreasonable, silly, paranoid…the list goes on. (One thing I’ve learned this summer, in a far more up-close-and-personal way than I would have liked, is exactly how paranoid anxiety can make you, and what kinds of wildly irrational fears it can convince you to believe in.) Long and short, even though resources and help are out there, it can be hard, sometimes, to reach out for them, and to find the right match for our needs.

Templeton hug
Hugs can help, as Templeton demonstrates.

This is where my question comes in, the focus of this post. I’d like to create my own small resource specifically geared toward artists who deal with depression and anxiety. It would come out of my own experience, and I see it as addressing and sharing that experience, and maybe also offering some affirmations, particularly for the times when we face things like rejection and destructive criticism. I also see cat pictures being involved, because why not?

What I’d like to know, though, is if you are an artist who has these challenges, what would be most helpful for you. What kind of resource would best encourage you, maybe offer a perspective you haven’t seen before or seen enough, or help you feel supported in your own work? What has been missing from the resources you have?

Making art can be a lonely process; doubly lonely, sometimes, for those of us who also feel isolated by mental health challenges. That’s where I’d like to help most. If you have thoughts about what you’d like to see, what might best give you some extra inspiration and support, please feel free to leave a comment here or write to me at kfaatz925@gmail.com.

More on the blog soon. Meanwhile, as always, thank you for reading!

Fergus therapist
Another therapy cat: Fergus.

Growing Pains

If you’ve been following the blog over the past few weeks, you know that one of the big things I’ve been writing about is recent experiences with anxiety. While panic attacks are familiar territory for me, the higher level of pretty-much-constant anxiety I’ve been living under is a new and highly unwelcome situation. I know I’m not the only one to go through something like this, though, and it’s been helpful for me to spend some time looking at causes and sitting with the feelings, rather than always trying to push back against them. If you’re a fellow struggler in these particular trenches, maybe some of these thoughts will help you too.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how a lot of what I’m currently experiencing started immediately after I made a promise to myself to take my work as a writer seriously. I was making the commitment to stand by my second novel until I find the right path to publication for it, and I was making the commitment to honor my work as a teacher and editor, and to remember that those skills are valuable and I should never doubt that fact. When I made that promise, I knew I’d get some level of pushback from depression, that longtime inhabitant of my brain. I didn’t know how strong the pushback was going to be.

ocean view 3

I’ve posted before about what my particular experience over the past few weeks has been like: the intense discomfort, the worry that I can’t trust what my mind is doing, the cycles of concern I go through. (“What if I can’t function? Okay, I can function, but what if I can’t do this specific thing? Okay, I can do that thing, but what if I can’t do this other thing? OMG, I almost put the milk away in the pantry instead of the fridge; I knew I was losing it!” and on, and on…). Along with worries about basic functionality, I’ve been afraid to trust my imagination. Of course that’s the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction: being willing and able to create imagined worlds and people, to take small threads of reality and spin them into a new and unique fabric woven from the mind. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ll suddenly lose all my skills in that area. Other times I’ve worried that maybe I shouldn’t imagine things so much, in case someday I have problems figuring out what’s real and what isn’t.

It’s taken me a while to realize that much of this really is the pushback from my old nemesis, as I honor the promise I made to myself. Writing is more than a thing I do: it’s a huge piece of who I am. It’s a delight, a challenge, an obsession. I’ve always been deeply reluctant to accept myself as a writer, and to give my work and myself the respect they deserve. The depressive part of my brain still doesn’t want me to do that. It’s trying to stop me in whatever way it thinks will work, and it fights as dirty as it knows how.

But I’m stronger than it is. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found that in spite of all the things I’ve worried about, yes, I can still function. (Surprise! 😉 ) I’ve driven long distances, run errands, made meals and desserts, played the piano, taught writing workshops, done housework and yard work, and often have actually been more productive than usual, out of a need to keep busy. Ideas for my third novel have been percolating, in spite of my worries about using and trusting my imagination. I’ve read good books and laughed at episodes of Good Omens (speaking of books, if you haven’t read that one, you must). Life has gone on. Looking at it from the outside, it’s been fine.

ocean view 1

Most recently, over the past couple of days, I’ve been able to think again about “what comes next.” I’d put that aside for a while, since getting along from one day to the next – and sometimes from one hour to the next – has been enough of a challenge. Now, though, I’m thinking about the workshops I want to do, the next book I want to write, the way my schedule will look in the fall. I’m finding myself honestly believing that in spite of everything that’s been going on, good things are on their way.

The other piece of this is that I know I’ll come out of all this stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m used to being scared of a lot of things. Now, though, I know what real fear feels like, and other fears seem a lot smaller. I’ve always been scared of driving on highways, but last week I did it every day without a twinge. Pretty much any challenge I can imagine feels like a problem that has a solution, rather than an unscalable wall. In a brutal, backhanded way, the past few weeks have given me a gift: perspective.

This is all still a work in progress. It’s easier, though, when I understand that what I’m experiencing is the growing pains associated with keeping my promise to myself. My depression doesn’t like it, but I’m doing it anyway, and everything is going to be better on the other side.

If you’re dealing with challenges like these, keep the faith. Good things are coming.

harbor

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

Centering

My new post is a little late this week: it took an extra day for me to gear up and put some thoughts in order. These past couple of weeks, but this past week in particular, have been incredibly challenging. I’m writing about it as a shout-out to all artists who deal with depression and anxiety. Solidarity, folks!

Last week I posted about traveling and some anxiety that came out of that. What I said less about, I think, was that right toward the end of the trip, I gave myself a “pep talk” about what I needed to do once we got home. Those of you who’ve been following the blog know that for the past six months or so, I’ve been looking for an agent for my novel Fourteen Stones. You also know that I’ve been trying out some new things, professionally, and generally working on building a writing career through a few different angles.

Toward the end of the trip, as I looked at getting back into “real life,” I tried to gear myself up for the next round of efforts. I knew I was likely to hear back fairly soon from at least one agent, and I had a couple of other important irons in the fire. On the blog, I’ve talked before about the effects that rejection and (perceived) failure can have on artists who deal with depression and anxiety. They can be annihilating experiences, making us call everything about our work and ourselves into question. Before the trip ended, I tried to impress on myself the importance of holding onto an ironclad belief in my work. After all, if I stop believing in it, who’s going to fight for it? I promised myself that no matter what, I would hang tough, always keep trying, and never forget the value of what I do as a writer and teacher.

Brevard dawn pic

And then I got home. Within the first couple of days, a handful of failures and rejections came in, one from the agent who so far has been most interested in Fourteen Stones. It was a very nice rejection, stressing the things that the agent had liked about the book, and the fact that the whole process is so subjective and that overall my work is very strong. But that, along with some other unwelcome news, created what turned into a perfect storm of panic.

For those of you who’ve dealt with severe anxiety, you know how disorienting it can be. You’re in constant fight-or-flight mode, unable to relax, burning through gallons of adrenaline a day, and maybe feeling like you can’t even totally trust your own brain. This is how I felt. While on the outside, I was functioning absolutely fine, on the inside I felt like I was hanging onto my sanity by my fingernails. Every day was exhausting.

For readers wondering if I knew to get help: don’t worry, I did. I spoke with a doctor and therapist, making sure things were okay, and finding effective ways to counter the surges of panic. Mindfulness practice is new to me, but even my first introduction to it was very helpful, letting me separate out my objective experience from the messages the panic was giving me. I took anti-anxiety remedies, got extra exercise, found constructive things to focus on – to break the cycle of “worrying about the worry” – and gave myself space to rest as much as possible. The whole experience has been tough, though. I’d expected to go into a depressive cycle after bad news. This different reaction scared me exactly because it was different.

What I realize, though, is that it’s all part of the same mental challenges I’ve always had. It’s a different and, for me, scarier side of my depression, but it ties back to all the same issues I work with every day. Putting myself and my work on the line, putting my words and ideas out into the world, is always hard for me. Now I know that my reaction to those stressors can take a couple of different forms.

waterfall pic

This experience has shown me what kind of work I still have to do, to stay centered and grounded no matter what happens on the outside. It’s shown me that hanging onto self-belief might be even more important than I thought. At least part of the panic I experienced, I think, came from deciding that if my work “wasn’t viable” (because of rejection) then maybe I “wasn’t viable” either as a productive or functional person. Again, that message is nothing new; it just took a different form this time.

Coming out on the other side of that very difficult week, I’m feeling better. Ideas and enthusiasms are reawakening. I’m feeling like I might just be able to follow through on some plans I made before all this started, plans that got forcibly put on hold when life became such a day-to-day fight. I’m waking up again. And yes, I’m going to go back to work on the next steps in my writing career, including finding the right agent for Fourteen Stones and for my books going forward. There’s so much I want to do. Depression and anxiety aren’t going to keep me from doing it.

If you, like me, have dealt with feelings like these, you’re not alone. It gets better. Panic is a horrible experience, but there’s help available. You are strong. You are okay. You can get through this.

I’ll close this post with some good music. The Temptations had a different message with their lyrics, but right now they sum up how I’m feeling, doing better and getting back to work. “Get ready, ‘cause here I come…”

 

 

 

“How Long Will You Let Them…”

As promised, new content on the blog today.

Last week, my husband and I went on vacation to north-central Pennsylvania. We were in an area known for its beautiful night skies: we rented a cabin close to Cherry Springs State Park, which is actually an international dark-sky park where amateur stargazers can take in their fill, and professional astronomers can set up telescopes for all-night viewing. While my husband and I didn’t join the stargazers at the park, we had a gorgeous view of the night sky from the backyard of our cabin. More stars than you can imagine, points of clear light spread out dazzlingly across a perfectly black sky. Some were so small and faint that they disappeared if you tried to look straight at them, but when you glanced away to the side, the spread reappeared magnificently.

Ideal stargazing means no light pollution, so by definition you have to get away from civilization. Our cabin was on a dirt road away from the highway, and the highway itself was a two-lane strip across the top of the mountain, where a passing car meant excitement. We could sit out on our porch and hear nothing but bird calls and distant sounds of sheep, cattle, and chickens from a couple of farms farther along the dirt road. On our last couple of nights, we heard coyotes calling in the woods not far away: first the eerie wolflike howl of a single adult, then another joining, and then the high excited yapping of what we guessed were puppies just learning the communication ropes. I had never experienced coyote calls in the wild before, and I have to admit they spooked me, especially when we heard them at midnight as we sat beside a campfire with the dark all around us and the stars overhead.

 

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Campfire evening

I learned a couple of things about myself on this trip, as we were out there mostly on our own, running into very few people even on our hikes in the area’s many state parks. For one, I learned I’m more of a city slicker than I’d like to admit. As an introvert, I don’t necessarily want to interact with people, but it seems I like to know they’re around. And secondly, as someone with anxiety, I learned how much harder it can be to control dire imaginings in the context of solitude.

“What if?” Anyone with anxiety knows that question and the chain of sub-questions it can call up in your mind. “What if something happens? What if one of us gets sick or hurt? What if we have car trouble when we’re out on the back roads and we don’t have a cell phone signal? What if it rains enough to wash a road out?” If you’re like me, you’d run through all of these questions multiple times each, along with others, and you’d try to come up with answers for all of them. You’d assess distances and travel times to the nearest towns with facilities you might need, and you’d eyeball the roads and try to guess exactly how much rain damage they might sustain before it would cause a problem, and you’d monitor your cell phone signal, and you’d imagine various hazards (possible types of injury, possible sicknesses) and how you would deal with them…and then, after a while, you’d realize you were very, very tired. Unremitting fight-or-flight does that to you.

I got frustrated with myself on this trip, more than once, because of the way my anxiety went into overdrive. The line between taking sensible precautions and catastrophizing can be narrow indeed, but I know how often I come down on the wrong side of it. It’s tough when you feel like you can’t trust what your own mind is doing. It’s tough when you feel like it’s fighting you, and you always have to try to fight back.

At home, going through my usual routines, I can keep a lid on my over-the-top feelings, rationalize them, wave them away. Out of context and outside my comfort zone, I had them shoved starkly into my face. I saw, again, what a problem they really are, and how they carry over into every aspect of my life.

Every time I started to get scared, I told myself, “There’s no demons here except the ones you brought with you. The ones in your own head.” And I asked myself, “How long are you going to let them call the shots?”

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Pine Creek waterfall, at the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon

 

Anyone with anxiety and its corollary, depression, knows how crippling they can be. They can hold you back from doing things you want to do, things you’d like to try but aren’t sure you can succeed at, or things you normally enjoy but suddenly don’t seem as important or valuable anymore. If you do try to do something anyway, anxiety and depression can make your efforts half-baked, or they can make the whole experience so terrifying and/or miserable that you come out of it convinced you’ll never do it again. They’re the enemies inside your own head.

The funny thing is, though, I’ve come to believe that in a backwards way, those destructive messages are actually trying to keep you safe. Anxiety and depression make you honestly certain that the new things, the different things, the risky things, are much too dangerous. You shouldn’t stick your neck out that far. So the over-the-top messages come along to hold you back, wrap you up tight in what your mind accepts as a safety net.

This trip made me realize exactly how hard my mind will fight me if it thinks I’m stepping too far outside my comfort zone. It also made me confront the question I’ve sidestepped many times: “How long will you let those demons call the shots?”

In case it sounds like I didn’t have much of a vacation, I can tell you that in many ways, the trip was beautiful. I already miss the solitude of the cabin, the bird calls, the clear cool air of the mountains and the peace and strength of the woods. But I’m grateful, too, to have had such a wake-up call about what my mind will do to try to keep me safe, and I’m glad to have come home with a clearer plan for how to address that. Re-programming my mental messages, giving myself new thought patterns to hold onto, and taking medication are all parts of this plan. Now that I know exactly how far my inner “demons” will go, I’m more determined than ever not to let them keep calling the shots. There’s a way to make this better. I will make it happen.

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Hills Creek Lake, Hills Creek State Park, PA

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

 

 

Re-post: One Equals Fifty-One

Re-posting another “old” favorite today. Life has been hectic lately, but also, this post helped me in the writing and I wanted to share it again. The blog will be on hiatus next week. It’ll return – with a brand-new post 🙂 – on 6/25.

——————-

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

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

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

“A lot less,” the big god answers.

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

“It’s the same.”

Hold onto that thought…

ocean view 3

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

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

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

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

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

“Is one less than fifty-one?”

“It’s the same.”

pastoral

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

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

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

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

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

“Is one less than fifty-one?”

“It’s the same.”

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

I am also one.

And that matters.

rose of sharon

 

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

 

 

Re-post: Conversation with the Zhinin

Today, mostly as a reminder and encouragement to self, I’m re-posting an old favorite from earlier this year. Apologies if you’ve read it before; but maybe, like me, you’ll find it helpful to read again. 🙂

—–

You go for a walk, alone. Maybe it’s the kind of gray-sky winter day with a breeze that makes you walk faster: a good day to eat up the miles. Maybe it’s the kind of early-spring day when you can feel the season turning, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. Or maybe it’s summer, in the morning, before it gets so breathlessly hot you have to go inside and stay there until the sun goes down again.

You go for a walk, alone. Except you’re a writer, so you’re not alone: your head is always busy with the people and places you create on the page. Right now, you have one of your characters with you. It’s easy to talk to a character.

Especially this one. He’s the kind of character you’ve always found it easy to love. You have a weakness for the “good man type,” the one who has a job to do and gets it done, but who carries the weight of some shadow of weakness or old grief. (Maybe that’s a cliché, but it works for you.) This particular character has both: the guilt of a long-ago loss and the chronic physical pain of heart trouble. A good-hearted man with a bad heart. You like the contradiction.

In the created world you’ve built around him, he is a zhinin, which in your created language means “priest” in the sense of “prophet.” You derived the word from the Lithuanian žyninas, choosing that word over others that meant “pastor” and “minister,” because you like the implications it carries. A prophet has to be honest. He tells the truth no matter who listens or not, or what they think of his message.

You’ve had your struggles with religion, but this man, your character, with his weakness and strength, represents everything you see as right in faith and the act of worship. Telling the truth. Tending to others. Helping his corner of the world, however flawed and troubled, get along from one day to the next.

photo challenge Irises
photo credit: Kris Faatz, 2015

He is easy to talk to. You’re alone, but not alone, and you talk.

On good days, I’m really good. On bad days, I’m awful. Sometimes I go from one to the other, over and over in a single afternoon.

“Good” days: well, those are the ones when I’m energetic, when I feel hopeful, when I feel like I can see who I am and what I need to do, and I know I’m doing what I need to. “Bad” days are the opposite. I’m tired and down. I can’t get anything done. Sometimes it feels like it isn’t worth trying.

You can tell him about the ugliness. You wouldn’t want just anyone to hear about it, but he doesn’t judge. (You’d think he can’t judge you, after all, because you put him on the page, but to be honest, characters go their own way. They can surprise you. But this man has enough “stuff” of his own.) You can tell him about the way you’ll be going along just fine, feeling positive about yourself and what you’re doing, and then you’ll see where some other writer – maybe a friend – got a book contract, or was hired to teach a fantastic class, or got invited to the kind of conference that wouldn’t look twice at a small-potatoes writer like you, and suddenly you find yourself turned upside-down with jealousy and a kind of tight self-directed anger that chews at your gut and tells you that you aren’t enough.

We all get that way, I know. But I wish when I was growing up that I’d learned it was okay not to be the best. I feel like everything depends on accomplishing. Other people have things I don’t, and I feel like there isn’t any room for me. Nothing I do matters, compared to what they’re doing or have done.

colorado sunflowers
photo credit: Paul Faatz, 2010

He asks you to spell out what you want: intentions, plans, and who you feel you are on the “good” days.

What I really want? Well, we all dream about the book that will win the lottery, so we don’t really have to worry about money anymore. But – if we’re talking about “good” days – I do remember that’s not the most important thing. The work matters. Writing stories that reach people: that matters. Helping other people tell the stories that mean something to them: that matters. Helping them make those stories as strong as they can: that matters too.

You tell him you think of this work as a “ministry.” You’re hesitant to use the word, because it sounds self-conscious, and you’ve had those struggles with religion. But, in fact, “ministry” is exactly the word that feels right. You want to know how you can use the gifts you were given. You didn’t ask for those gifts, and sometimes you tried very hard not to use them, but they’ve only gotten stronger and more insistent with time. When you let yourself do what they ask of you, you’re at your most happy. And you want to know how they can make the world better for someone else.

On “good” days, I know they can. I’ve seen how people change when they get excited about a story they want to tell, or a story that wants them to tell it. I’ve seen how much people can grow when they do this kind of work, and when they help each other to do it.

He knows what you mean. He tells you that, in his view, your line of work is much like his. In a different way, you are also a zhinin.

I don’t deserve the title.

In the fictional world he belongs to, it’s not just a job description, but an honorific of sorts. A zhinin doesn’t rank high in politics, maybe doesn’t earn much, but he or she gets in the trenches and does the necessary work. This one, your character, tells you that you do deserve the title. However many bad days you have, the “you” of the good days is always there. Hidden under the surface, maybe, but never lost.

You walk, alone but not alone, through the chilly winter air, or the almost-softness of early spring, or the languid summer heat that will soon turn searing. You hold that word in your head.

Zhinin.