Between a rock-paper-scissors and a hard place: on writing, performance anxiety, and winning!

We writers can get pretty weird about our work. Depressed. Anxious. Neurotic. Self-obsessed. Hysterical, even.

If writers had enough money for therapy, the mental health field would be booming. But instead what we have is an entire readers market dedicated to writers who write about writing and the struggles we writers face.

Ours aren’t your normal professional struggles. You’ve never seen your plumber or retail manager having a nervous breakdown about a deadline or a line that wouldn’t scan. Lawyers don’t wake up and go, “Maybe I should get out of these pajamas and get a real job?” And no one other than a writer really understands. It’s just part and parcel of the gig.

My students at the community college think I’m nuts because I’ve given myself life-long writing assignments, often with little or no pay. Like this blog here that I ‘m writing at nearly 11 pm on a weeknight after I spent the whole day writing to finish up a year-long project, my Practical Magic for Writers book.

Before I even turned in my final grades and declared school out for the summer, I’d taken on another deadline: Write Club, a head-to-head writing competition that is billed as literary bloodsport. There are chapters in Chicago (where it started), Atlanta, and here in Los Angeles. Basically: Two writers. Two opposing ideas. Seven minutes.

Marya Write Club
Marya Summers defending “Overt” at Write Club Los Angeles, the Bootleg Theater

Contestants get a week. I was assigned “Overt” and my opponent, “Covert.”

In a nutshell it was a crazy week: I sat for full days with a lap top heating my thighs. I wrote decent poetry, then terrible prose, and finally decided to stick with poetry.  A day before the competition, I only had a solid 2 minutes of stuff I liked. Writing five more minutes of poetry – good poetry — in just the space of two days? When I hadn’t written a poem in like a dozen years? Um, hella hard.

The night before the competition, I sat in my meditation group with anxiety so intense that I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a giant rock was sitting on my chest and like I needed to run for a very long time. The next day, the day of the main event, I got up early and took the run my body craved, though I hadn’t run in months, and then I wrote some more. The anxiety wouldn’t let go. Nothing I did would shake it. I kept lowering the stakes:

1) It doesn’t have to be a good poem, just the best you can do.
2) It doesn’t have to be your best, you just have to have something finished.
3) It doesn’t have to be finished, just read what you have and have fun.

But the anxiety wouldn’t let go no matter what I told myself. Even while I was trying to have fun. It didn’t soften until I got on stage. Stage fright has got nothing on real anxiety — in the face of the former, the latter wasn’t even noticeable. The anxiety evaporated somewhere in the stage lights, I think. Just like that.

And then I won.

Loving Cup of Deathless Fucking Glory
The hard-earned Loving Cup of Deathless Fucking Glory

The moral of the story isn’t “anxiety = winning.” Not at all.

The point isn’t “anxiety = pointless, so why am I so silly?” either.

My point here is that anxiety is something that I’ve learned that I just have to live with sometimes; writing and performing have seldom been comfortable for me. Facts are, it’d be nice, but I don’t write to be comfortable. I write because I have to. It’s who I am. Sometimes being me is pretty fabulous, and someone gives me a trophy or a paycheck for it.

You know how beauty queens and glamour girls say, “You have to suffer to be beautiful?” I think what they are saying is about perseverance – that sometimes things are really uncomfortable. Whether it’s a girdle or performance anxiety, it’s hard to breathe, but you tough it out anyway.

Writing is hard. For me. For lots of writers. For those who say it comes easily, well, I really can’t say I like them much. Nor do I trust them. I think they are probably lying.

But what we have, friend, is intestinal fortitude. It’s a Fire Element quality — much like anxiety, which is also the result of excessive Fire energy — that I discuss in my workshops and book Practical Magic for Writers, which will be finished this summer.

Summer: the season of fiery solar energy! What better time to summon our inner creative warrior? Have writing anxiety or need some other writing help? Hit me up. Seriously. I luuuuuvvvvv to help.

The Secret Life of Procrastination: It’s alive and it’s coming for you! (and what to do when it does)

The other day procrastination loomed. It cast its dark shadow over my newest creative project in the form of my black, three-legged cat Oliver; then it plopped down and took the pen out of my hand, purring while it chewed on the pen. This was certainly a lot cuddlier and cuter than what I was doing. But dammit, I was finally starting to get somewhere!

When I was a columnist with a weekly deadline, I hardly ever had a problem with churning work out, even when I wasn’t particularly “feeling it.” I knew the drill: investigate/research on the weekend, write Mondays, revise Tuesdays, wake up at the crack of dawn Wednesday and make final revisions and edits. Some columns were more inspired than others, true, but my column was popular, and I met my deadlines.

oliver

Back then, if a cat sat in the middle of my copy, I just pushed it out of the way. There was, after all, an illustrator who needed the copy so that he could do his work before the layout people could do their work and the issue could go to press, and everyone could get paid. A lot of people were counting on me, including my daughter, Oliver and his four-legged counterpart, Sappho, all of whom had gotten used to living indoors and eating food.

After a couple of years, I’d burnt out. I’d pushed a lot of things out of the way to get the column done, including a desire to express myself authentically in a way that was meaningful to me, which editors kept striking from my copy. At first I resigned myself to the constraints, then exhausted and uninspired, I resigned the position. After I was on my own, however, my writing foundered. I had a bunch of half-written projects lying around and no real sense of urgency to get anything finished. Clearly I knew how to get things done; that wasn’t the problem. I worked, but at a slow pace. Some months I got nothing done at all.

Deadlines, accountability, and incentives: yeah, but…

These helped some. I wrote deadlines down, joined writers groups, and offered motivators like telling myself I could redecorate my bedroom after making my first $1,000. But those weren’t entirely effective. My brain isn’t dumb. It knew these were artificial motivators. Technically, no one needed the writing, my writers group might have thought I was a slacker, but they weren’t harmed when I showed up with unfinished writing, and if I really wanted to redecorate my bedroom, I already had the funds to do so.

A mentor suggested writing a check to a cause I loathed and then giving it to a friend and telling her to mail it if I had not accomplished my goal by the deadline I set. This could work, but it is coercive rather than motivational, and it’s not the relationship I want to have with my creativity.

Instead, I got busy looking at the investment I’d made already in my project (that is, the money in education, the sacrifices, and the time I’d put in). Clearly, the project was important to me, or I wouldn’t keep coming back to it. Then, I connected with the value of what I was creating. This included a monetary value of a completed project, but more importantly, the social value of how my project would help others. The latter had always been an incentive that inspired me. Inspiration, rather than coercion, was how I finally got myself going and what keeps me going.

Procrastination: It’s ALIVE!

No one likes to be told “No.” or yelled at to “Stop it!” I’ve watched people dig their heels in when what they want or what they are doing is negated. Children will throw outright tantrums. So will cats – this is where the term “hissy fit” comes from, after all.

I like to think my creative process is no different. When I get hung up in procrastination and I start resisting it, it acts out. Procrastination, like everything, WANTS TO SURVIVE. When it feels threatened, it gets defensive. Like a cat, it puffs up and creates drama. And I get even less done.

The secret is to overcoming procrastination is not to try to overcome it. Don’t make it a power struggle, which will only drain your energy. It sounds counterintuitive, but embrace the procrastination!

Instead of thinking of procrastination as not getting started, I think of it as Step #1. When I teach writing, I have my students put it on their “To Do” lists. No sense in ignoring it – procrastination wants to be a part of things. So include it, and then cross it off when you are ready to move on to Step #2. It’s win-win: Procrastination is happy because it’s gotten some attention, and you are happy because you’ve gotten something accomplished, ironically, by not doing anything. (You’ll learn in my classes and workshops how this sort of re-framing of ideas will change your whole world.)

Saying “hello” to my little friend and making space

As Oliver chewed on my pen in the middle of my project, I stopped my work for a minute and stroked his soft fur and said hello. Then I took out a few pieces of blank paper and put them next to those I was working on. I slid the furry distraction over on top of them. “Here,” I told him. “This is your project.” He sat on his pile of empty pages, batted at pen and bit it a couple more times, and then curled up and dozed off. While he napped contentedly, I got another pen and got back to work.

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Creative teeth: When your work bites

Yesterday, while I was spooning down a trifecta of Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt — honey, cherry almond, and vanilla custard — I was secretly fantasizing about killing someone. I’d been dishing to my pal J about the latest novel I’m reading and loving. It’s a Y.A. fantasy that my adult daughter wrote.

J was like, “Oh wow, your daughter wrote a novel?  What’s it about?”

I’d barely gotten three sentences out when he started laughing. “Another vampire novel?”

Maybe I’d been inspired by one of the characters in the novel, but I almost leapt across the table and tore his throat out with my teeth.

I suppose taking pity on the guy was the right move, considering a) children at nearby tables would have been forever scarred by a fro-yo blood-bath and b) the near-victim knows nothing about the creative process– neither the challenges nor the sacrifices (nor that he was almost one of them).

Other than kicking my powers of creative visualization into high gear and giving me an opportunity to exercise my impulse control, my friend also offered me an opportunity to reflect on some important truths about the creative life:

  1. People are going to mock and criticize because they are cowards themselves. It makes them feel superior and gives them a sense of safety. But it’s actually keeping them from taking risks and keeping them stuck, which is their problem. Not yours or mine. We know our creative baby (or grandbaby) may be fugly but we’re gonna love it anyway. Because it’s ours, and it’s a gift we appreciate because it teaches us about ourselves and the world. Like, how about all that badass discipline it takes to finish something as huge as a novel? How about the vision? The courage to move forward when you don’t know where something is going? These are things to celebrate. Creative risks are moments to celebrate precisely because of the cowardly critics. So maybe on a day when I’m feeling particularly charitable I will remember to thank the person or people laughing at our art for making us all the more heroic in our creative actions.
  2. It has all been done before. Yup. Lots of vampire novels have been written. And that’s because people like to read them. Duh. Fantasy fiction fans are hungry like a blood-starved vampire for another good book to sink their fangs into. So let’s not worry too much if our poem sounds a lot like a Rumi poem or if our novel isn’t novel enough. If we are one among many, that sounds a lot like an audience to me. Carry on.
  3. An entirely valid approach to creativity is imitation. It’s not only the highest form of flattery, it’s also highly instructive. We learn a lot by imitating those we admire. In fact, I’ve watched a painter friend reproduce Van Gogh’s technique, learning from the master though separated by centuries. I’ve got musician friends who swear by learning cover songs for similar reasons: they learn technique and structure as they play songs others have written. I’ll also add that lots of times accomplished musicians pay homage to those they admire by adding a cover to their set list. I saw Panic at the Disco cover Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” this summer and I was blown away. It was done with passion and precision, and no one was laughing that it had been done before.

Want more insights into the creative process and inspiration to keep you going? Come see me over at Wholly Creative.

A self divided cannot stand: resolve inner conflict, get more done

Much of my personal and creative life began to fall in place when I started to practice yoga and study yoga philosophy. It was on the yoga mat and in the classic texts that I found the best instructions for healthy thinking and practical spirituality. These enhanced my writing life. (You can read my paper presented at the MLA conference and published in the book Beyond the Frontier here: ” Writing West to East and Back Again: A Yogic Approach to Life-Writing.”)

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Yoga & Writing

In the introduction to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic Hindu text on physical yoga practices, Swami Muktibodhananda explains that yoga is the union of mind and body (to be clear, they aren’t separate…they just get out of synch or in dysfunctional relationship). This idea from that introduction has become central to my well-being:

Often we observe that when we try to practice self-control and discipline, we create more mental problems in our mind and personality…Therefore before you practice self-discipline and self-control, you must prepare yourself…If harmony is not created in the personality, then self-control and self-discipline will create more conflict rather than peace of mind.

You want to know what this “conflict” looks like?

Imagine your ego self holding a whip demanding that you to get to work and your feeling self complying grudgingly, refusing defiantly or in some way failing miserably. The task could be working on a creative project or going to the gym or doing the dishes. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. The point is that there’s a split in the personality between the self that thinks you should do something and the self that doesn’t want to it. It’s a sort of schizophrenia, almost.

A self divided against itself cannot stand. Or put another way: you are not being able to stand yourself.

I lived like this for years. I got a lot written, published and performed, but I was miserable because I was living in conflict with myself. Basically I’d tell myself I was a loser if I didn’t do the thing I knew I should do. There was some value (moral, financial, ethical, etc) inherent in the action that I felt I “should” do, but instead of focusing on the value, I focused on the action itself. When I lose focus of the “why” of things, I quickly see a hostile relationship between Marya the goal-setter and Marya the goal-fulfiller.

These days, when I recognize a “should” and an aversion to it, I know to look deeper. Why do I think I should do it? What is at the root of the aversion? This sort of reflection really helps me unify my “selves.” When I am connected with my desire — with why I “should” do something –I am able to get to my work in a way that makes me feel good and fills my work with purpose.

What “shoulds” do you wrestle with? Take some time to write about these, about what value these have (financial, moral, ethical, social, etc.). Sometimes we inherit “shoulds” from our families or society without examining them; if they have no value to you, personally, let these go the same way you might discard an ugly chair that used to belong to Aunt Agatha.

I think you’ll find that once you connect with why you want to do something, the aversion will soften or even disappear and you’ll be able to show up for the work you should do because you want to do it.

Creative anxiety nixed

If you’ve got creative goals, my bet is that you’ve had to face anxiety about whether you would actually meet them. In its most dangerous form this anxiety becomes generalized — the free-floating fear that seems to emanate from your creative project and engulfs you when you approach it. When I’ve had this anxiety, it shuts me down.

In fact, I had this anxiety yesterday, and oddly enough it’s because I’ve been celebrating some victories.

The book I’ve been working on is close to complete. During the holidays, I organized all my writing in one document with chapters and subheadings. It was beautiful! I felt like I’d seen a sonogram of this baby at 7-months. I could see it: all its fingers and toes! It just needs to grow a little more and soon it will be ready to come into the world.

Congratulations! It’s a book!
The fear that somehow I would screw this up, that I would fail to nurture my baby to full gestation was what set me in motion: I needed a schedule! Every piece of creative success wisdom had said this. So I bought a calendar, and I started filling in how much I was getting done each week. Startlingly little. A lot of my “writing time” was spent goofing off watching movies about magic or doing research on magic. That’s when I started to panic.

When I sat down to write an email to my coach (that’s right the coach has a coach!).

I am having trouble putting together a schedule for getting my book done. To be clear, I keep showing up and working on it just like you’ve taught me, which is why I’ve made it this far, but I’d like to hammer out a schedule. I keep seeing things that say pick a deadline and work backwards to create a schedule, but I don’t know if that’s realistic given my circumstances.

The problem: Lots of times I hit a block where I have to do research, meditate, or otherwise process stuff before I can write because I have no idea what the next idea block of info is about or what to say about it. And so the book slows down, sometimes back to R&D phases. Also, I am managing some health stuff (in addition to juggling the full time job) so some days I just can’t show up like I’d planned to.

When I try to create a schedule, honestly, it often amplifies the anxiety I already deal with on a daily basis and then I get MORE STUCK.

Is it possible to put together a schedule for completion in these conditions? Or is it better to just show up every day and record my progress?

I never sent that email. Because as soon as I wrote out what my problem was, I started to see what my REAL problem was. This is why when I’m coaching I say that we are not only learning to write but writing to learn! Once it was ON THE PAGE, the HUGE and INFINITE anxiety was FINITE, which meant that even it if it’s big that it could be managed. That actually reduced my fear. All I had to do was write it down.

Basically, there was a cycle that was based on these fears:

Know your superpowers!

#1 Fear of failure. This is based on the false belief that who I am is what I achieve. If I fail, this just reinforces what I have long suspected was true: I’m a fraud. A bad writer and a bad person.

#2 Fear of the unknown. The baby is still growing, and I don’t know what it’s going to need from me or what it’s going to become. What if it’s hideous? What if I’m a failure? (Return to fear #1, and repeat)

 These are normal fears that whip into a fast and furious cycle of dysfunction.

After writing things down, I realized I’ve met LOTS of deadlines when the stakes were high and I had no idea what I was doing. The thing was, the projects were smaller and the parameters more defined. Yup. That was my problem — an Earth element problem that lots of writers have.

(You can learn more about The Elements of Practical Magic for Writers.)

I, like other writers, am so frequently BIG PICTURE (Air element) in my thinking. My brain is so busy envisioning the grand scheme that it’s hard to focus on the minutia. But as soon as I realized, if I make this a CHAPTER project rather than a book project, the anxiety diminishes. And if I make this an ARTICLE project the anxiety is practically nonexistent. I needed smaller chunks! That’s not a new or radical notion at all. In fact, it’s common advice that borders on cliche.

I was so overwhelmed with anxiety, though, that I couldn’t see or think straight.

I would have been stuck in the anxiety cycle and shut down if I had not written down what the problem was and meditated on it. Sometimes the answers come. And the good news is this: if the answer doesn’t come, you have a clearly worded expression of what you want help with that you CAN SEND to someone who can help. That’s also part of the Earth element energy that assists us in our creativity: having a tribe. (You can join my tribe.)

So that’s what I’m asking you to do today. If you have some problem that is bedeviling you and slowing your creativity, write it down.

If you get an answer, would you share it me?

If you need help, let me know. I’m happy to help.

Sacrifice: a confession, an oath, an homage

I’ve been trying to write about sacrifice for days now. I realized it was important part of Fire element (I’m writing a book, Practical Magic for Writers, where I look at writing through the lens of the four classical elements), that we need sacrifice in order to keep us committed. I know this firsthand; I’ve sacrificed big time.

I have a clear purpose, a clear audience, but there is something in me so adverse, so resistant to writing about it that I haven’t been able to get myself to sit down to write for three days. When I try, my aversion has me open Facebook or email or compose something else. I’m a professional writer, for fucksake. And a writing coach. “Heal thyself!” I scream at myself in my head. Disgusted.

candle flame
A light in the darkness

Lighting a candle got me to sit down and open my lap top and start writing. I made it to 800ish words in a herky-jerky, stop-start process that felt a lot more like learning to drive a stick-shift than sitting down to write.

It’s a huge relief when I realize I am crying. I’m opening a huge can of worms. Fucking huge. Because to me sacrifice means leaving my then-2-year-old daughter with her father so that I could write. And it’s difficult to explain how I could do that and not be a monster; or if I am, how I got to be that monster. Or how my now-26-year-old daughter has both benefitted and been hurt by my choices. How we both say I did the best I could, given the circumstances, but both of us feel like we deserved better. We’re both still hurting and angry.

It’s difficult to explain the subtleties of what happened – how I didn’t “give her up,” for instance, or how much my difficult relationship – including emotional, physical and sexual abuse – with my own parents influenced my choices. It’s too much. And my cat, which has been relegated to the porch for shitting and pissing all over the house, is howling. Other than the over-eating, she’s a healthy cat. But she’s an emotional wreck.

sappho-2
A 24-pound cat fits easily into any size box.

Anxiety has me by the shoulders and is shaking me hard. And I want to punch the cat and shake her hard. I want her howling to stop so that my pain will stop its howling. Who can write in these conditions?

I decide not to be thwarted by writer’s block. Not to succumb to the urge to punch the cat. To write, even if it is crap. Just write it anyway. Because if I don’t write, not only do I feel the pain of the past but I also feel the pain of my present – my past and current powerlessness. And if I punch the cat, then I really am a monster.

I have rationalized my choices, but I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m pretty sure that’s holding me back. I’ve been punished enough. I am ready to be forgiven, to be washed clean. I want all the experience, all of the wisdom, none of the pain, none of the guilt.

The cat is still howling.

Too much of the time, I have felt like a hostage of circumstance. But I’ve decided my victim days are over. So, fuck you, anxiety and pain and shame and fear. Fuck you. You don’t get to control my life anymore.

I’m writing you off, out of my life. I will squeeze you out, shake you off. You will dangle at the end of my sentence, howling.

The Manifestation Tree: A new ritual for a new year

I love a good ritual! A few years back I invented a ritual to celebrate the new year and honor the things I wanted for myself and my life.

It started as an urge to give others what they most wanted. Just before Christmas 2015, I had been brainstorming gift ideas for a couple of close friends. I wanted something that would be meaningful but wouldn’t be expensive. I had squirreled away some giant mugs with spiritual quotes that seemed like a good start, but I didn’t just want to stuff them with candy (so impersonal!) or give an empty mug (symbolically awful!).

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could give the people I love what their hearts most desire?”

The rest came to me pretty quickly. I conceived of a variation on a floral arrangement in the mug: “The Manifestation Tree.” It would be an attractively arranged bunch of branches from which paper leaves were hung by ribbons. On the leaves, goals, desires, or dreams could be written down with the intention of the growing them into existence.

GET A FREE COPY OF THE MANIFESTATION TREE BOOK!

magical-treeIt was everything: affordable, meaningful, symbolic, and practical.

I gathered fallen branches in a eucalyptus grove. Then I went to the craft store for the rest of the supplies: florist’s foam, decorative moss, silver spray paint, ribbon, craft paper, permanent markers. I selected silver spray paint and shimmery craft paper to create a magical feel, and then I chose ribbon colors specific to my friends’ personalities. My Buddhist friend would get a purple-ribboned tree in a black mug with an image of Buddha; and my yogini friend would get a aqua-blue ribboned tree in a blue mug with the lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles.

My friends appreciated their gifts, keeping them up for the season and then saving the mug when the branches had served their purpose.

I was so in love with my invention that I made an identical blue tree for myself, and it still stands. My manifestation tree sits on my kitchen table year round, a sort of altar in the my home’s nerve center of growth: the place where I nourish, heal, and warm myself.

I’ve watched as each of the intentions I wrote down manifested one by one. The leaves were a visual reminder of what I wanted in my life, and I believe moved me toward what I wanted. As I identified new goals, I wrote them down and added them to the tree.

Tmanifestation-tree-coverhe tree is rather full now, and I’ve seen most of what I intended come to fruition. This year, I may begin removing the leaves that have manifested to make room for new ones to grow. It seems fitting that these leaves be sent up in fire or stored in a special place.


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I lead Creative Flow: Yoga & Writing in Recreation Park in Long Beach, California, on the first Saturday of the month! Come move and write with us!

Gonzo writing tips: take leaps, get lassoed, leave the shotgun

Lots of people let fear of the unknown or of abject humilation thwart them. I’m not one of these people. My willingness to leap, assuming that I’ll land, if not on my feet then some place better than where I currently stand, is one of my superpowers.

So it was pretty much a total Marya move when I quit the best writing gig I’d ever had. For two years, I’d been writing a weekly column for Voice Media Group, the nation’s biggest alt-weekly franchise, the one that publishes Village Voice, L.A. Weekly and New Times. My liquor-drenched tales of South Florida nightlife were a hit among the readers of New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

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Monkeying around on the nightlife beat. 2007-ish.

As a home-turf writer, my job was to add local color and levity between the hard hitting news and the raunchy sex ads of Back Pages. It sounds like an easier job than it was. No one wants to hear  about any ol’ average night-on-the-town. They want to read epic bar adventures they couldn’t or wouldn’t have themselves. In me, readers wanted a modern-day female Hunter S. Thompson.

Since I own no shotguns and avoid LSD, I doubled down on the whiskey and smart-talk. I quickly ran into another problem: a real epic is hard to achieve when one has no self-destructive urge and wants to keep her day job. (I’ve been working as an English professor for nearly 20 years). Plus, a night of drinking that’s worth remembering usually can’t be remembered.

My editor made it clear: I better get to writing snappy copy or I’d be out of a job. What does a writer do when there’s nothing to write about? She creates something to write about.

On my beat among the bar flies, lounge lizards and club kids, I was a provocateur. I’d prod randomly selected patrons with barbed quips and ludicrous and loaded questions, trying to get them to say something worth quoting. Or I’d instigate a story — like the time I asked a cowboy to prove himself and then wrote about being lassoed in the parking lot.  And at the computer, I was a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together unrelated pieces  — quotes and anecdotes — as a coherent whole. Then I’d use a cocktail of sarcasm and description to bring the thing to life.

About half way into this two-year gig, I wondered what the hell I was doing. This wasn’t art. This wasn’t why I studied writing. I began to resent my editor and the confines of the column: I had to sound younger than I was to appeal to a target demographic and I couldn’t fold my real-life challenges (such as being a non-custodial parent or coping with the recent death of my father) into the narrative. I felt like a phony. And when I kept at it for another year, I started to think of myself as a sell-out.

When I quit, it was with the intention of keeping my motivations pure and writing something more valuable and less disposable than a column in a free weekly rag.  But once I no longer had a clear audience or rhetorical situation, my writing foundered. I wasn’t sure what I was writing or who would want to read it.  Without an editor waiting for my copy, my sense of urgency diminished.

As a columnist, I had been writing and publishing 1500 words a week, which is about the number of words a person needs to write if they want to write a book in one year. But after I quit New Times, did I write a book a year?

Nope.

I didn’t even finish one book in 8 years. I moved to California. I wrote and published a few essays. I wrote and performed a couple of stories on stage. I solved the drinking problem that was encouraged by a job that picked up my bar tab. Mostly in the post-New Times days, I experimented with new forms and ideas and expressed a lot that wasn’t published or performed.

cliffAnd then recently, as I’ve set out independently as a blogger and writing coach with a forthcoming book, I started to kick myself for having been so foolish as to give up my power — my platform! Even if I had the time and energy to start all over again, what were the odds I’d make it far as I had before when I was younger and boozier? Why hadn’t I realized how good I’d had it?

And then, because writing is how I process things, I started writing this blog post. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out what I had to say about my experience. Was I trying to say something about the importance of structure (one of the subjects of my Practical Magic for Writers workshop)? Was I offering a cautionary tale? A lesson about appreciating opportunities? Lowering expectations? Letting go of the glory days?

I felt like I’d screwed up somehow, but I wasn’t sure how I could have done things differently. Should I have recognized the power of a “personal brand” and a “platform” sooner?

I mulled it over for several days. Then one night as I soaked in a hot tub of salty water, it hit me: things were good at New Times just like they are when a kid lives with her parents.

At the magazine, I had other people’s expertise and resources aiding me in my success. My editor taught me a lot about storytelling and about voice. I learned how to compensate for boring plots with punchy dialogue and colorful character sketches. I learned how to marry poetic description and sarcasm.

I didn’t have to worry about finding or narrowing a topic or finding the right “home” for a piece. Neither did I concern myself with a suitable structure or finding an interested audience. All of these were provided for me, and I took it for granted much the way a kid takes a roof over her head and three squares a day for granted.

All I had to do was submit my copy and then a team edited, illustrated, laid out, and printed the thing and got the whole magazine into newsstands and online. And I got paid every week like clockwork.

But I also paid a price: I had to keep meeting someone else’s expectations. I couldn’t really express myself or experiment, which is to say, I had been right (oh, how I love being right!): I hadn’t been a real artist — I was just fleshing out someone else’s vision (this part I didn’t love at all).

Maybe it was the epsom salt at work, too, but the realization helped me relax into a self-acceptance. I realized that I had just experienced some growing pains…some of the same challenges a kid faces when she goes out on her own. With fewer resources and less experience, I would be likely to have a hard go of it for a while. Which is exactly what happened.

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More mature? Fewer visible monkeys. 2016

I hadn’t screwed up; I’d grown up.

Today, I also realize something else: Maybe it’s not called a “leap-of-faith” because we believe that we are going to land on our feet but because we know that being airborne will allow us to expand — to grow, to take a new shape and discover new space. We take a leap because we have faith in the value of experience. And, if we survive, it gives us something worth writing about.

 

Need help with your writing? Get my free newsletter or hit me up at marya@whollycreative.com. I love questions. Really, I do.

Good news: you’re an artist, not a sociopath

Validation is a tricky thing. We all need it…. Ok, most of us need it. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’re a sociopath. And if you need too much of it, you’re needy and exhausting and we all wish you’d work on your self-esteem.

It’s hard to strike a balance. Or to even know where the line is, exactly. This is especially true for artists. What’s “good”? What’s not? How do we know? If we are on the cutting edge, we don’t even have anything to measure our own work against. Sometimes it’s nice to just hear that all our hard work is appreciated and maybe even…gasp!…valued!

You wouldn’t think an offer to have work purchased (Hello, money!) would be an insecurity trigger. But my artist buddy called me the other day, questioning himself and his work because he’d received offers to buy the rag he’d used to wipe his paintbrushes. The problem was, people hadn’t shown much interest in the paintings that he’d labored over, sometimes for days at a time. The attention “The Paint Diaper” had gotten seemed to say “Why bother trying to create anything meaningful? — Just sling some color around.”

My friend was demoralized.  I told him I understood.

Some nights on the poetry slam circuit, I would get so disgusted by what I deemed the unsophisticated tastes of stupid audiences.

The average poetry slam audience liked pieces that rhymed. They liked poems with word play – regardless of whether they actually made any sense. They liked poems that were full of bravado and rebellion – they didn’t notice the logical or factual problems. Worst of all, they loved poems that sounded like hundreds of other poems. The predictable and familiar almost always won out over the inventive and challenging.

The truly creative, the challenging and artfully rendered pieces sailed over most people’s heads like a fine bone china plate, shattering into bits of polite but bored applause at the end. It was enough to make me want to scream or quit. Sometimes, like my friend, I wondered why I bothered at all. The only answer some days was that I couldn’t stop — that I was compelled to keep writing the same way he is compelled to paint.

But the day my buddy called me to tell me about “The Paint Diaper” situation, I had a new perspective. I had seen a picture of the rag when he’d posted it on Facebook. I’d enlarged the photo to get a better look.

The little swabs of color caught in the waffle weave of the cotton rag were random, yet they made sense. The effect – the unity of chaos and simplicity – was reassuring and lovely. But most of all, it was easy to like. It didn’t ask much from the viewer other than to be perceived as color and pattern.

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T o pander or not to pander? That is the question.

And I suddenly understood that my high expectations of my audience lacked compassion for the fact that life is often complicated and difficult, and people often just want art that distracts or pleases them, not another demand or challenge.

I understood my friend when he said his “real work” felt diminished; I reassured him that his art has value whether people appreciate it or not.

If our art is about an expression of ourselves, then had he not done it? And hadn’t I? We had both honored that urge that compelled us to create. And if it wasn’t appreciated the way we had intended, did that matter? I mean, so what if it was the unintentional result of the process that delighted people?

And so what if my own “real work” was less appreciated than my commercial work or the poems I’d composed intentionally pandering to audiences so I’d get high scores? Hadn’t my efforts both to express myself and to be appreciated allowed me to understand my friend better and to connect over a shared experience?

And isn’t that what art is about after all: expression and connection?

The entire creative process is fraught with questions and dilemmas that philosophy and spiritual traditions (religions) have grappled with, found answers and solutions for…and then codified. But creativity, to me, is real faith. It’s a living breathing thing in which we explore and celebrate and struggle with what it means to be human.

Summer’s bounty; Writing as harvest

In these final days of summer, let’s take time to honor the season’s fiery energy before it’s gone. That fire manifests itself in lots of activity, frequently recreational activities, because the days are longer and we feel more alive, and because the season’s heat is balanced by the cooling qualities of play and leisure, which restore and rejuvenate us.

They don’t call it recreation, for nothing.

In agriculture, the summer is the period of growth and maturation, catalyzed by all that abundant sunlight. Fall is the season of harvest — that time where we reap the benefits of the seeds we planted in spring. We see the farmer’s calendar reflected in the school year, which is why we have the summer off to play, and in fall and spring we work.

Often the fun we’ve had during the summer is perceived as less productive (and therefore less valuable) than other times of year when we are hard at work. This true only if we are measuring our productivity in terms of external achievements rather than internal growth.

Because I teach a full course load of college classes and run my own creative coaching business, I certainly need my goof-off time just for sanity’s sake.  Summertime is when I get it. Sometimes I’m down on myself for what feels like an indulgence; I often overlook how much I’m actually getting done while I’m “doing nothing.”

This summer was no exception. By summer’s end, I groaned at how little I’d done in the way of crossing things off my “To Do” list. I was pretty close to giving myself a hard time about my lack of discipline. But then I thought about how much got done (intentional use of the passive voice, folks!) while I was doing nothing.

While I was off playing and having a great time, I underwent important, transformational growth. For instance, I met a wonderful someone with whom I deeply connected and thereby received not only a summer playmate, but a growth accelerator. The romance sparked my imagination and ignited my heart, but it also aroused fear and touched old wounds. As the fiery energy of summer  kindled desire and affection, it helped me burn through some of the debris of the past.

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Moving into the fall, I have an opportunity to create stories and essays from my summer experiences, harvesting the wisdom from my my growth. Like that old Christian hymn says, I will be “bringing in the sheaves” (sheaves are bundles of grain) that matured during the sunny season. And I will rejoice the planting, growing, and harvesting as I write.

Writing is how I thresh and winnow, separating the wheat from the chaff (or rice from the chaff, for those of us who are gluten-free). To continue the metaphor, ultimately, this process is how I make my dough, make a living, sustain myself. It’s how I became a “real writer.”

Remember that essay your teacher made you write on what you did during your summer vacation? Why not write one now?

Rejoice!

 

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