The same deep water as you

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In between reading about physics, dictators like Pol Pot, Underground Railroad/slavery, addiction, and theology/comparative religion, I throw in easier reads. Last week it was the autobios of Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein, Girl in a Band and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, respectively. I refer to them first of all by their names, even if they are not known to everyone, because… well, I don’t like it when I see something like “Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon”. Even if she is primarily known to the world as a member of Sonic Youth, I wonder if that is how she would want to be defined. Carrie Brownstein, by extension, could be identified with several different things, but for me, it’s just going to be the names by which they are known to the world, but not their associations. Sure, I get it that without these associations, these books wouldn’t have been published.

What I took away from these books was not the cheap thrill of some kind of name-dropping exposé or a glimpse behind the scenes into some dubiously glamorous life. In both cases, I got a confirmation that most of us are awkward bombs of iffy self-esteem and comical self-doubt, right on the edge of lighting the fuse. Each of us trips through life, having our experiences, feeling silly and out of place, believing everyone else around us is so much smarter, more sophisticated, having it all together.

It struck me in these cases because Gordon makes a point, at least twice, of describing the mismatch between the persona and the person – people have perceived her as cool, standoffish, aloof – and that is, without a doubt, the image projected. But reading what she writes about herself, that illusion crashes down.

And in the case of Brownstein, it was all the more revelatory. She and I were classmates at The Evergreen State College, both during our first year. I can’t remember a time in my life that I felt more awkward and less like I belonged somewhere. I marveled every time she spoke during seminar because she seemed to have well-formed and passionate opinions. In the years since, I have sometimes looked back on that school year, and she stood out (not as a media image, musician, comedian/actress or all the things she has become since, but as a fellow student within that moment in time) in my mind as someone who appeared to know her opinions and was able to articulate them. Maybe we all have those “people” in our minds – they were not our friends or people we knew well, but from afar, we create an image of how cool we think they are. And for me, she represented that image.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read that she was nearly traumatized by the experience of having to speak up in seminar (she, like me, was told by professors that she was too quiet, not participating enough – and our professors knew we had valid, well-considered opinions because they read our papers). In class, her voice would take on the fever pitch of what most would interpret as conviction and passion, but as she wrote, it was nervousness at just trying to get the thought out at all.

“At Evergreen, I was too nervous to speak up in class. I knew what I wanted to say but didn’t know how to interject or insert myself in a conversation. By the time I got up the nerve, my voice would be shaking, so even if I was saying something relatively innocuous or factual, I sounded like I was full of passion, emphatic, on the verge of crying. It was humiliating and my professors often noted my lack of participation.) It took a very long time to catch up with my performer self, to draw from that strength.”

I can remember very clearly sitting next to her in one of the early seminars, when she spoke quite fervently about how and why she did not relate to particular passage in one of our readings. I admired this so much, being a shy, unassuming, invisible marshmallow myself. How could I have known that she was struggling just as much as I was to say what she wanted, when she wanted to?

She wrote about trying to impress people and ingratiate herself to people she met during those years.

“…showed up to Olympia a wanderer. I had about two months until school started. I spent the first few weeks walking around downtown stopping in at the State Theater or thrift stores or the Martin apartments, places I knew people I wanted to be friends with worked or hung out. I lingered and muttered, I waited around. I was desperate to insert myself into situations, to learn, to observe. I was an archaeologist of sorts but I wanted to be a participant, to be connected and engaged. I was shy, which didn’t help. Underneath that nervousness, however, I had a cunningness and intentionality, or at least a cluelessness that was intrepid enough to get the job done. I cared too much about what people thought but also not enough. I didn’t mind that I was just hanging around. I didn’t want to be discovered, I wanted to be part of the discovery.”

I could relate; I, like many of us, I went to college essentially friendless and was starting over again. I was constantly doing stuff like offering people rides (I gave her a ride somewhere once), hoping that they’d see that I was not as lame and awkward as I seemed on the surface. I was just barely treading water (as it turns out, so were they).

Maybe this should not surprise me, but at the very least, reading both books reminded me that we are all riding the same choppy waves, sometimes in really deep water.

Photo by David Forsman

Silencing and finding the voice

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Some time ago, apparently in 2013, I wrote the following – but then only put part of it in my blog. In fact, looking at it now, I see it might even have been a part of a letter I had written – I just don’t know. I imagined, upon finding this document, that I had published the whole thing. It comes up again now as I have had so many discussions about writing and how one lives as a writer – or accepts the label or distinction of being a “writer” – what separates those who call themselves that, those who really do it, and those who actually write something useful versus something good? And does it matter if it’s good? Is anything objectively good? And when or how, if at all, do you throw off the doubts, insecurities, past argumentation, excuses and just write and see what happens?

From Valentine’s Day 2013 (?) – Writing, friendship, finding and silencing a voice

Thinking a lot about writing. I have always been prolific and productive … words just pour out. But nothing better than mediocrity. As a child, as soon as I was capable of writing, I was writing. But nothing I wrote was careful or measured. Not that you expect an 8 year old to produce carefully crafted, well-thought-out, plot and character-driven stories. No, but I was even more careless than that. I hurried through everything in life as though it were some kind of race. Every activity in school, I wanted to get ahead, get there quickly and be finished. Finished with what, I don’t know… there was no finish line and things just went on and on. (I have only reached a place in life now – almost 40 – where I don’t feel like everything is a race.)

Spilling over into adolescence, I met a girl who was to become my best friend for several years. She declared very quickly after meeting that she wanted to be a writer and was working on a story of which she seemed rather proud. I remember the first time I went to her house, she shared the story with me. I don’t remember the story very well – only that the main character was a girl named “Kyle” (my brother’s name), and upon reflection I get the feeling this character was a lightly fictionalized version of her troubled self. I suppose like most people who invest any time and effort into writing and stake their identities and reputations on it (even if they are kids), I felt intimidated by other people’s writing, another conceit and insecurity that has fallen away with years and thicker skin. I, too, considered myself something of a writer. Both of us had apparently been tagged with this moniker from youth and had attended all the young writers’ conferences and writing courses offered to people our ages.

I suppose like most “writers” I also felt fraudulent. I was 12 and I had nothing to say. No experience. No insights. Just some random feelings and a cloudy, guessed-at grasp of what I imagined adult reality and experience might be like. I was still plagued by that sense of hurrying up – finish – move on to the next thing. But added to this was the desperate desire to be liked – not by just anyone but by this would-be best friend. I spent every evening dashing off lengthy but at-best mediocre stories for her benefit. I wanted her to read them and love them – we were the thinly veiled protagonists of these ridiculous stories. I wanted to come to school each morning and deliver a new story for her entertainment and her praise. Not because I fancied myself a writer or thought it would lead anywhere but because I wanted her to be happy.

But it didn’t matter. While she loved the stories, and I was eventually counted as her best friend (which had been my dubious, feverish-teen-girl aim – a number of us were competing for this dubious honor. No idea why – this is the adolescent girl way), the whole productive force of what I had created intimidated her. She felt insecure and suffered a crisis of confidence about her writing in the midst of the universal crisis of confidence – adolescence – because she could not keep up with the avalanche. (How many times have I hit this wall of “I can’t keep up with you” reasoning?) The sheer volume of what I had created silenced her. She believed somehow that what she imagined and created was no longer good enough because it did not exist in the same abundance.

We were 12. We did not know about “less is more” and “quality not quantity”.

The strange thing is… this is still a thing. The friend is no longer in my life. I have no idea if she later realized these truths and picked up pen and paper or a computer again and started capturing her thoughts in writing. I hope so. But I find that I have made my entire career on this ability to rapidly churn out reliably decent, mediocre text in which I have little to no personal stake. It’s called B2B marketing, and it is soul-sucking and dry and maybe just a couple of steps above used car salesmanship.

And because I produce a lot – the productivity fools a lot of people. I am somehow “so good at my job” because I create a lot of material quickly. Is it good? Not in the way I consider things good. Yes, it displays an understanding of the discipline/industry/field about which I write. Yes, it’s decent and correct. Would it win any awards (even within the marketing industry)? No. It all does its job and is better than anything a content mill produces.

But it is this volume question again that gets to me. People are deciding that I am good at what I do because I am quick and take on a massive workload.

But is that good?

Back in the years of adolescence again… I recall that I earned this reputation among all the teachers in the school and eventually the school district as a “writer”… and eventually I suppose that intimidated me and made me feel boxed in, in much the same way as my friend had felt boxed in by my productivity. Were these adults not just humoring me? Encouraging me to do something because they are teachers, adults, would-be mentors and have to encourage us? Could my writing actually stack up to anything else in the real world? Eventually I came to resent this “title” and moved away from it. I spent very little time in high school writing for enjoyment. I wrote a lot of research papers, essays, letters – in fact I still wrote all the time, for different audiences and different reasons. This continued in college. Most of my professors echoed the sentiments – that I was a really good writer. But even if this seemed more truthful and objective than earlier applications of this title, I, by then, felt out of practice. I had been writing letters and essays/analysis for so long that I had no idea how to write a story any longer.

To think that I used to write 30 or 40 pages every night without even thinking.

And maybe that is the key – without even thinking.

You can think and edit later. But for now, just write. Get all the words out, let the story flow. Follow it where it goes. But for such a long time I had been writing carefully crafted paragraphs that supported only what my evidence could prove. And this is not creative. It IS what makes me successful in B2B marketing and other similar content creation. But it is not what will lead to a readable novel.

Your own dictator

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“How could I tell you anything? You are not even talking to me.”

On to the second of the two “New Age” books I agreed to read:

“Remember that self-doubt is as self-centered as self-inflation. Your obligation is to reach as deeply as you can and offer your unique and authentic gifts as bravely and beautifully as you’re able.”

Self-doubt and struggling with a lack of sense of self are two different things – but interrelated.

I don’t feel paralyzed by strong self-doubt, and I certainly don’t feel like I lack a sense of self. But I do have those moments of doubt that stop me – maybe not the doubts that tell me I can’t do something. More that I doubt whether I have the strength to persevere through difficult things. I feel this keenly with practical things – do I have the fortitude to push through the difficulties and complexities of learning and understanding all the things I would have to learn and understand to take on X career or Y project? I never feel this doubt or self-questioning otherwise. But then, what of this obligation to reach as far, as wide, as deep as possible into your own capabilities?

Is it really an obligation? To whom? Yourself? The world? I wrote yesterday about projected expectations, and other people assuming things about you. I had a conversation with my father recently (it doesn’t happen often; he is the king of assuming things about others), and he told me something about his sudden bouts with anxiety and the nervous and constant buzz he has in his stomach; he asked if I had ever felt that way. Oh, only every day of my childhood. He was incredulous when I said this, “But why on earth would you be nervous or anxious? You were so smart.” As if being smart erases the kind of self-doubt, nervousness, shyness that shadows you every minute of your life – all it does is help you craft an identity, authentic or not, that you can use when you are out, forced to interact in the world. Does the innate ability or intelligence you possess eventually outweigh or overtake all the doubt or nervousness – or the complete misunderstanding or blindness that those, supposedly closest to you, have applied to you?

Are we obligated by having a natural gift or talent to pursue it? Sure, it seems a waste not to, but are we shirking a duty or responsibility by ignoring our “unique and authentic gifts”, or merely letting ourselves down?

Ultimately, as Julie Carr writes, “You have to be your own dictator
and the law is, hate yourself if you have to, but don’t stop doing the thing you said you were going to do
”.

FORECLOSING ON THAT PERIL
Julie Carr
I’ll keep explaining—because maybe you still don’t get it
Those children in California (substitute any state), dead from gunfire—
Let me begin again in a little roof garden with my friend
A perverse reader, he listens to my stories as if they were TV
I mean he mocks me lovingly on the roof and at the library book sale
My friend is not a banker but a prison activist
He used to be a philosopher, but like many philosophers, he’s taken a turn
that should be easy to understand
The trajectory from philosopher to activist is like the curve of a single brushstroke across a large canvas
Artists in the fifties paid attention to that
I hate flat language like this, but I’m pretty flat
sometimes. You have to be your own dictator
and the law is, hate yourself if you have to, but don’t stop doing the thing you said you were going to do
As I tell my daughters often
Emotion is a site of unraveling (JB)
I admit, gripping my T-shirt
I wish I were writing in prose an unfolding intensity that shocks history professors and prison activists equally
Later, in the grass, we’ll practice gymnastics and that way contribute our sweat
to Our Ephemeral City

And, reflecting on the doubt, and the not-entirely-accurate identities we inhabit in figuring out who we are, I realize we are like animals who shed their skin. You change identities no matter who you are, and the former you still informs, as memory and experience, but does not define, as the previous New Age tome I read wisely posited:

“To relinquish your former identity is to sacrifice the story you had been living, the one that defined you, empowered you socially – and limited you. This sacrifice captures the essence of leaving home.”

The writer also cited one of my favorite poems from Derek Walcott (here’s a piece); it half-applies:

“The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.”

Photo (c) of Mt Rainier by the late, great Paul Costanich.