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.  


Throwback Thursday – Mountains and Lily Pads

Mountains and Lily Pads

This image was taken on the Seward Highway in Alaska. I’d journeyed down to Seward from Anchorage that day to go on a whale watching adventure in the Kenai Fjords. I took this photo, strangely enough, with a portrait lens on a medium format Bronica GS-1.

Throwback Thursday – Big Gunpowder River

Big Gunpowder River

Big Gunpowder River, Baltimore County, Maryland–I love this part of the river. It’s not far off a road so it’s not hard to get to this spot. There are lots of big rocks to sit on by the water’s edge where you can relax and let the gentle trickle of the river lull away your stresses.

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.


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…

I’ve Never Been Fooled By Smiles

I’ve never been fooled by smiles.

hanging pulls on
false drawers

candy-coated tar
that fails
the baker’s toothpick test

I’ve never been fooled by smiles.

My Blogging Companions

KittiesMeet Rory (in the orange) and Murphy (in the gray). If I’m not blogging, then one of these two must be distracting me by begging for treats.

We Say We Like Creativity, But We Really Don’t

creativity melting

Is your creativity melting away in this 9 to 5 world?

Jessica Olein has written an interesting article on Slate about how people say they value creativity, but they really want everyone to jump in line and dutifully follow the status quo, even if it is to the detriment to those who talked the talk about valuing creativity in the first place.  I hate to say it, but as someone who lives in the 9 to 5 world, she’s right.  I see it almost every day.

Though her company initially hired her for her problem-solving skills, she is regularly unable to fix actual problems because nobody will listen to her ideas. “I even say, ‘I’ll do the work. Just give me the go ahead and I’ll do it myself,’ ” she says. “But they won’t, and so the system stays less efficient.”

Ideas for how to manage projects, streamline workflow, and integrate technological advancements are nearly always met with metaphorical brick walls in the workplace.  If the ideas are presented from the bottom to the management then they are almost certain to fail or to be dismissed outright without even a friendly ear.  After awhile, people become apathetic and stop suggesting creative solutions to problems.  The resistance to creative change, even in the positive, is astounding!

Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

To survive a creative life we can’t let that apathy consume us.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard, “We’ve been doing it like this for XYZ, which is why we should keep doing it like this going forward.”  This is not a reason for doing something if there is a way to improve upon it–especially in our technological world of lightning-fast changes.

“Everybody hates it when something’s really great,” says essayist and art critic Dave Hickey.

I ran into this myself in a creative writing class back in 1990.  I had written a first-person short story from the point of view of a character who dies (not that my story was really great or anything, but who am I kidding, it was pretty awesome for a high-school kid).  The character continued to narrate the story from beyond the veil of death.  My creative writing teacher insisted that I couldn’t do this.

“You can’t have a narrator that’s dead.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“You just can’t.”

In 1999 the movie American Beauty was released, and guess what–that’s right, the narrator of the story was dead.  That movie won 5 Oscars and according to IMDB had 74 total award nominations and 94 wins.

Why again couldn’t I write a short story in which the narrator is dead?  It’s exactly what Olein is talking about in this article.  The story was something new at the time–it was definitely out-of-the-box. My creative writing teacher had quite a bit of jealousy rattling around inside her when it came to my burgeoning writing talent (there were many other issues that made this abundantly clear, but that’s a post for another day…).  And just because she had never seen someone write a story with a narrator who dies, she rejected it as an impossibility.

Unfortunately, the place where our first creative ideas go to die is the place that should be most open to them—school. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favoring their satisfier classmates who more readily follow directions and do what they’re told.

And even if our teachers do support us in our creative pursuits and encourage new ideas and innovation in our thinking, what is our current obsession with testing doing to the creative among us?

Even if children are lucky enough to have a teacher receptive to their ideas, standardized testing and other programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (a program whose very designation is opposed to nonlinear creative thinking) make sure children’s minds are not on the “wrong” path, even though adults’ accomplishments are linked far more strongly to their creativity than their IQ.

I’ve had long conversations with a teacher-of-the-year friend of mine about No Child Left Behind and how it leaves no room for creativity in its curriculum demands. We also talked about direct instruction (mostly experimented with on low-income children, of course) being the same way.  We’re teaching our kids only to follow directions and stay within the lines.  Teaching a test is not teaching problem-solving, which is something that life requires of all of us.  Problem-solving often involves finding creative solutions to complex issues.  You can’t learn this by picking A, B, or C on a multiple-choice test.

To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.

I choose to live creatively.  It is at the essence of who I am as a person in this world.  I’ve never really fit–I’m the proverbial square peg and I refuse to carve corners to try to wrongly wriggle into a round hole.  I choose to be myself and, accepted or not, here I am.  Now if I could just let go of satisfying myself…

As writer Anais Nin once said, “Perfection is static, and I am in full progress…”