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.  


The Economy of Words


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.