Overcoming One of Writing’s Greatest Blocks–Other People’s Expectations

Creatively Screwed

When I was young and first started letting others read my creative writing, I ended up with a lot of pushback from my parents and other adults that I was supposed to trust.  I would hear, “Oh, you shouldn’t use those words,” or “That’s not lady-like Michelle.”  The whole point of the criticisms, even when I was writing truths, albeit sometimes painful truths, was to tell me that my point of view—my words, my world—wasn’t valid.  That somehow my life experiences were things that shouldn’t be written about.  And during those times, I wrote about some incredibly painful things.  I didn’t really understand that those who were telling me that I shouldn’t write about those things were really concerned for themselves and how they might be perceived through my work rather than how I might be perceived.  In other words, it wasn’t about me at all—it was about them.

It has taken me an age to shake off those expectations and I still struggle with them from time-to-time, but I understand better now.  I know those expectations are not at all about me, but about them.  Just because I don’t fit into someone’s narrow view of who they want me to be, does not make it my problem.  It makes it their problem.  It took someone emotionally and mentally battering me to really see these poisonous expectations clearly and how they were not only stunting my growth as a writer, but also as a human being.

My father’s passing helped with that too.  He had expectations, of course.  All parents do.  Sometimes they think they are supporting us, but their expectations mold us into something they want us to be instead of letting us be ourselves.  I don’t think they always realize that they are doing it.  They are often fighting their own demons when they try to shape us.  My father certainly was.  He grew up in severe urban poverty with an absent father and a single mother who’d have to hock the radio every month to make the rent.  I think the reason he had fond memories of his childhood during WWII was because that was when his mother had a good job working in a factory making a decent wage.  She lost that, of course, when the men came home from the front and took their jobs back. 

My father’s childhood was a constant struggle for money, and having a father (my grandfather) who was an artist (and a drunk) meant that artist in you was not something to be embraced, but hidden and overcome.  If you had a creative side, you suppressed it.  You got a decent job and worked your way up to management through the ranks (you could do that in his time—not so much anymore) and you were afforded The American Dream.  You could buy a house, support a family, send your kids to school, have extra money to save for travel and retirement, and you could do it all without needing a high school diploma (my father joined the Navy at 17 and got a GED during his enlistment).

Dad wanted the same dream for me, but with a college degree.  It didn’t matter if my dreams were different.  I don’t think he ever understood how much the world had changed.  He lived in the past and I’m doing my best to live mindfully in the now.

I’ve always had this incredible desire to be myself.  I didn’t realize how rare a thing this was.  So many people want to be someone else.  In high school, I was at a party where a guy I barely knew was running around drunkenly asking everyone,  “If you could be anyone in the world, living or dead, who would you be?”  People were mostly answering celebrities or sport stars.  I didn’t hesitate; I said I wanted to be myself.  I’d had a few drinks and it was a completely honest, spontaneous answer.  I shocked the guy.  He stared at me in silence for a few minutes then hopped from sofa to chair in his bare feet and shouted my answer to everyone at the party.  At the time, I didn’t think it was a remarkable response, but this inebriated guy thought I’d said the most profound thing he’d ever heard and wanted to get to know me better because of it.  My answer made me interesting.

I’ve never wanted to be anything other than what I am.  I tried to reach the expectations of others because I wanted to please them and wanted them to be proud of me.  What I’ve learned along this journey is that expectations are impossible targets because they are always moving.  And when you release an arrow from your bow and it’s heading straight for the bullseye and you think you’re finally going to meet those expectations, the target jumps aside and you miss it completely.  I’m sure I repeated that shot a thousand times before finally understanding that the game is rigged.  You’ll never hit the target so you might as well be yourself.

Learning that lesson was a breakthrough for me in overcoming my biggest block in writing and in life.  

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The Economy of Words

Fire

Coaxing the Coals

When I first graduated from college, I wanted to work in the publishing industry helping writers edit their work.  I like editing, and every writer really needs to be a good editor.  I didn’t live in one of the big publishing hubs–New York, LA, London, etc.  So I settled for the first job that I could get that was even slightly related to my field.  I took a job as a technical editor for a searchable website database that helped researchers and postdocs find projects and funding.

I would take 20-50 page abstracts describing technical and scientific projects and edit them down to a searchable page–the essence of the description.  I did this for about three years.  During the majority of that time I tracked Department of Defense funding opportunities.  That meant I often edited abstracts that dealt with cool research on nanotechnology–things you’d swear were lifted straight out of the latest science fiction novel.  Unfortunately, it also meant that I edited a lot of abstracts that sought new and wonderful ways to kill more people in less time.  My conscience and the pacifist in me, struggled with the latter.  I liked reading about exciting scientific studies, but I had real problems with being even the slightest bit involved in helping to develop new means of taking lives.

I learned quite a bit in those three years, both about paring down a description to it’s essence, and about my capacity to tolerate things that I abhorred in order to earn a paycheck.  I’d learn both of those lessons over and over in the years to come.

I switched gears and started working in arts administration after that.  I thought that at least by working in the arts, I wouldn’t have to advertise opportunities to figure out how to kill people.  I also thought that I’d be able to use my love of storytelling to benefit the arts in my community as a grant writer.  Grant writing is, in many ways, storytelling.  And I really like that part of it.  Unfortunately, I landed somewhere that business speak was prized over storytelling by those with yes-or-no powers, even though I’d heard repeatedly from those in the grant industry how jargon should be avoided at all costs when writing a grant.

So storytelling about arts programming flew out the window as well.  I learned again, with online grant forms that had word-count limits, that an economy of words was important.  I was schooled again in how to be succinct.

These were good lessons for me as my early creative writing was overly flowery and descriptive.  So I learned how to write in a way that was the polar opposite of my innate ability.  It’s amazing how we can allow ourselves to be sculpted into something that we never set out to be.

Now, in the midst of what I’d like to call the epic endeavor of storytelling–the novel–I find myself both glad of those lessons in economy, but also angry about them.  I’m having to tap back into my natural, but put-aside, gift for description, when my instinct is now to budget my words.

I’m finding my stride and I’m certain my gift for eroticizing the landscape will flow over me again.  I still have it, but it’s been tamped down for so long that I’m still coaxing the coals back to fire.

No matter what I feel I’ve learned or lost, I’m finding balance.  And not just with my words.

Poetry – Consciousness Drops

I was flipping through some old notebooks and found this poem filled with cross outs and squeezed-in words.  In reading it, I decided that I liked it as it seemed to well represent the time in my life when it was written.

Consciousness Drops

softness touches my cheek
like a pillow of clouds
depositing the sands of sleep
beneath my lowered lids

consciousness drops
the final curtain
on a stage

veiled by surrealistic visions–
Dali’s stilt-legged elephants

coconut hoofbeats
echo infinitely
in a hollow hall

the vast magician of nothingness
steams vegetables in my brain
trumpeting madness and casting shadows
against the dark night

Gathering the Threads

A lot has happened since May, when last my words tread their path across this digital stage.  For the past eight summers I’ve been badly busy, trapped in a raging maelstrom of grandiose proportions, but that’s over now and I get to look forward to a quiet, less chaotic, contemplative time.

I’ve missed this.  I needed it more than I realized.

How do you gather the cloak of your true self around you and pay attention to its folds if the constant toiling exhaustion from a stress-centered life leaves you hobbled?  The answer is, you don’t.  The cloak wears and wears and before you know it, your self is composed of shredded strings holding the holes together.

Right now, my cloak feels like the torn up pieces of a tattered flag after it’s been left in a powerful wind and bleaching sun for near a decade.  But I see that now.  No longer a cloak of invisibility, it’s been carried into a warm, safe place, and is being assessed for repairs.

The wheel turns, the seasons change, and again I find myself the weaver of patches for a cloak that has seen better days.  It survived though–by thread and seam and force of will–it survived.  And from the ragged shell, I’m confident a vibrantly mended cloak will emerge.

I’ve been gently gathering the threads that still hold strong and am using them as a framework to make the cloth whole again.  All that’s left is figuring out the colors and designs of the patches.  That’s a task I’m looking forward to.

 

Epitaph

Clonmacnoise, Ireland

Celtic Crosses and the River Shannon, Clonmacnoise, Ireland

I’ve always said that the last thing I want to be inscribed on my headstone is She kept a clean house. 

I’d way rather follow poet Mary Oliver’s sentiments on living and dying.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.

In other words, I’d much prefer to have a dirty house and a well-lived life filled with wonder and awe.

If there’s fun to be had then leave the dishes in the sink!  I’m outta here…

I want my curiosity to lead me this way and that.  I hope to hell that if the road turns left and I want to go right, that I’ll always go right.  Even if that means I end up stranded out in a field with my tire stuck in a muddy rut.

At least I’ll know that the path I chose was mine alone and that my route wasn’t determined by the road someone else built.

Grief is a Journey

The wind squeezing between the gaps in my window sounds like the crying and wailing of a tormented heart.  Spring is difficult this year because somehow, resurrections, new beginnings, and the proliferation of green and burgeoning life just don’t mesh with my latest wave of grief and sense of loss.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know my father died this past October (2013).  April 27th would have been his 79th birthday.

It’s hard to celebrate someone’s birthday after you put a death date on their headstone.

We always hear that life is a journey. Well, grief is a journey too.  Few of us make it though our lives without being touched by grief–if not crippled by it (at least for a time).

Despite what so many sociologists say, grief doesn’t follow a pattern.  It’s so individualized, as are so many things that others have tried to put into a box with a big, bright label.

Often, my grief feels so intense that I need to share it to survive it.  So I’m sharing.

I don’t want to forget what it’s like to grieve my father.  Because at the root of grief is love and I sure as hell don’t want to forget that.

My father and I often butted heads, but despite all of our trials and disagreements, I never once doubted that he loved me.  There is no one else in this world who loved me the way my father did.

Taking photographs gives me some distance from what I see in the frame.  It puts the camera between me and what I’m experiencing and sometimes it allows me the time to review, reassess, and reevaluate. Sometimes to survive a creative life you need to create through pain to gain perspective.

A lot of people who have seen the iPhone photos I’m posting ask me why I would want to photograph something like that.  I often wonder why they wouldn’t, but then I’ve always thought a little differently…

Grief doesn’t always start with a death.  I started grieving for my father long before his physical life was gone.  What becomes of the strong man when his strength leaves him?  What happens when your identity is focused on one thing (beauty, intelligence, creativity, strength…) and due to age or circumstance, you lose that identifying factor?  You grieve.  Some find a way to overcome that loss and discover a new thing with which to identify, and some never do.

My father was always the strong man who took care of everyone in his life.  When he lost his strength, he lost his sense of self and he never recovered it.  I really started grieving him then because I knew that was the beginning of his end.  This was my first wave of grief.

imageThis was his second admission to the hospital in the space of a week for what they were calling a bowel obstruction. He wouldn’t leave the hospital again until he decided to end a life-sustaining treatment and die.

imageMy mother and I spent a lot of time camped out next to my father on the built-in couches in his hospital rooms.  Neither of us slept much for months so we’d grab a few zzzzs whenever we could. The butterfly scarf that I used shield my legs from the hospital chill seems almost poetic looking back. What were we waiting for? Transformation. Metamorphosis. From physical being to one of spirit.  From a place of pain to a place of peace.

We didn’t know it at the time and we hoped against hope that what was ailing my father was fixable and we’d have a few more years to share sideways glances over his cantankerous behavior.

imageThis was when, after nearly six weeks in the hospital, we finally knew what was wrong and that the outcome would probably be bleak.

imageI sat behind my father as he slept in this chair the night after his surgery and couldn’t stop crying.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop the tears.  A nurse asked my mother if her granddaughter was going to be okay.  My entire life strangers have thought my parents were my grandparents.  This was my second wave of grief.

imageDad came home from the hospital for 5 days.  He was so happy to be home, considering…  My mother had the hospital bed set up in the family room facing out a big sliding glass door onto their beautiful back yard.  When my parents bought the place, my mother fell in love with the house, but my father fell in love with the property.

For 4 of those 5 days he slept a lot, but was lucid and had the time to tell us he loved us and ask us to continue a few traditions after his death–the most important being that my mother and I keep going out to dinner once a week to make sure we didn’t lose touch with each others lives.  He loved going out to eat–all of us together.  Mom and I tended to get sick of eating at the same place every week, but Dad was a creature of habit.

Driving home the 4th night, I hit the third wave of grief.

image

On the 5th day we had to move him to hospice.  Mom couldn’t keep him in the bed and he was too big for her to handle should he get out and fall.

Once the dying lose their ability to speak and can no longer open their eyes, the only thing you can really do is hold their hand.  Dad’s hands were always hot and often sweaty in life. They were the same in his dying.  I don’t want to forget what his hand felt like as I held it for hours and talked to him about the happy things we did together throughout his life.  He had enormous hands (size 14/15 ring fingers) and when I was little I could wrap my entire hand around his thumb.  It always made me feel small.

imageIn the beginning Dad could acknowledge you with a squeeze, but as time went on the squeezes got weaker and then ended all together.  But his hand stayed very warm.

imageWhat made his death finally feel real for me was putting my hand over his in his casket.  For the first time in my entire life, his hands were cold.

imageMy father loved coins, especially silver dollars.  I found a lot of them sifting through his treasure drawer about a month later.  When I came across the one pictured above, I knew exactly what it was.  The 1922 peace silver dollar is so worn that the detail is lost in Lady Liberty’s hair and the wings of the eagle on the back are completely smooth.  My father carried this coin in a little plastic bag in his wallet for the better part of 60 years.  It happened to be in his pocket the day his first wife left him and took his entire coin collection.  This was the only coin that remained because he had it with him that day.

Clothing manufacturers don’t always put pockets in women’s clothing so I bought a surround for it and wear it often on a silver chain–sometimes with his wedding ring.

imageThe fourth wave of grief hit me at a holiday party that happened to take place in Dad’s old elementary school (it has been re-purposed as an art center now).  It was the only part of his difficult childhood that he talked fondly about and I could feel the child in him still living inside those walls.  I had to leave and couldn’t stop the tears until I made it to his grave.  (You tend to get very strange looks on the bus when you can’t stop crying while you’re wearing a fabulously flamboyant tiny hat.  People want to look at you because of the hat, but then they don’t want to look because of the tears.  People are so afraid of raw emotion.)

The fifth wave of grief is still in progress as of this post and it has lasted the longest of all of the waves.  It started as the weather warmed and April dawned crisp and clear after a long winter.  I keep waiting for this wave to crest and subside, but it hasn’t yet.  It just keeps building and building and I thought for sure it would break after his birthday passed.  I was wrong.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me that it gets better, but so far for me, it has gotten worse.  I finally had a friend tell me that she feels the same way–that it gets worse, but that you just go on.  You pretend to be a real person with a real life until in the pretending, you find your way again.

It has been 208 days since my father died.  That seems like such a long time.  It’s not.

There aren’t many things in this world that I’m sure of, but this I know.

Life has a purpose and love never dies.

Love you Dad.  Always…

Mirror Me

photo 2After a frigid, snow-laden winter and several days of drenching rains, the sun is shining.

Sitting at lunch I see my image reflected back to me twice. One reflection is close and one is far away. Reflected to the side I see the street and people approaching from behind.

Too many reflections.
Too many version of myself.

Some, I can almost touch and some are so far away they barely seem to be in the same room with me.  I feel like that when I look ahead–multiple reflections in multiple mirrors and all of them are just out of reach.  I’m grasping for direction, but there is nothing of substance to hold onto.

I’m noticing myself everywhere lately–staring back from a glass storefront, a shiny car, or a quickly evaporating puddle…

Me. Me. Me.
I’m haunted by my own face.

I’ve been following the path someone else projected on me for far too long and the reflections I’m seeing are starting to resemble someone I don’t recognize.

Which path do I take?  Which reflection is my true self?

I notice that where the light is stronger, the reflection is stronger.  Where the light is dim, my image mingles with the images of things around me.  I still and fade into the background. The bustle takes over.

Opening day baseball fans decked out in black and orange.
A junkie in the middle of a nod.
Buses and cars trundling forward then stopped, abruptly, in traffic.
A woman encircled by smoke.
Office workers escaping fluorescent lights.
A blind man with his stick.

Where do I fit?

Usually I walk past these things without noticing. I’m there in the reflection, but I’m not always conscious of it. I practice invisibility.

Lately, I’m always aware. Each unintentional self portrait is asking…asking…asking…

What do you see?

Look closely.
There’s something important you’re missing.

Reflections are supposed to be superficial–an image of the outside, but they can show  much more. Maybe that’s why I’ve been seeing myself so much lately. I need to look past the outward image that others use to define me.

I need to go deeper…beyond.
Keep reaching.
Growing.
Evolving.

I am so much more that what you see on the outside. So much more…

I’ve always had a fascination with reflections. It shows in my photography. I look into a mirror each time I compose a picture. Each image, no matter what the subject, contains a bit of me.

A mentor once told me I should do an entire series focusing on a specific type of reflections. I still plan to do that one day.  Maybe the universe is trying to tell me that it’s time.

When you walk past a brightly lit window, who looks back at you?  Do you embrace both the seen and unseen?

I gaze into my own eyes reflected in a shallow puddle and I sometimes lose myself in their depth.

The World Is Too Much With Me

Hatcher's Pass, Alaska

Hatcher’s Pass, Alaska
(and yes, it really was amazingly green)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
–William Wordsworth

I had a really tough time coming to the page tonight (and yesterday).  A tornado of thoughts and emotions are swirling around in my mind and heart.  And while I’ve always thought myself more of a fiction writer than an essayist, writers write, right?  So here I am with my words tumbling and stumbling along like a diaspore waiting for the wind to disperse its seeds so they can take root and grow.

I have to trust that somewhere, at the end of this, a purpose will present itself.  What is life without meaning?  I still haven’t found mine, but I’m trusting in the process.

My soul is heavy with injustices I can’t counter and false blames I can’t deflect.  It’s times like these that I want to run off into the woods, away from people, away from the sorrows and trials of my everyday. I want to be someplace that feels real and honest.

Sky.  Trees.  Quiet.  Stars.
The rich smell of damp earth.
Mountains that make me feel small.

When I dream of a simple life, I dream of these things.

The world is too much with me.  These days I can’t take a step without sinking knee-deep into a pothole.  Is this what Wordsworth meant?  Of course it is.  He saw this coming more than 200 years ago.  I’m just personalizing it.  For this, for everything, we are out of tune…

I want to walk quietly and gently through this world.  There’s too much shouting to hear inside my own head, and too many distractions to remember what’s real.  That flickering light on the TV screen and the screeching of brakes–that’s a different kind of real.

How do I change this?  How do I find the silence in the chaos of everyday?  I’ve tried deep breathing and meditation, acupuncture and exercise, drumming and surrendering myself to a higher power and more, but nothing lasts.

I’ve been asking these questions for 20 years and I may have to learn to be content with the only answers I’ve ever received.  A breath of wind against my cheek.  A sudden storm as I start to cry.