Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

When I was in high school, I had what might have been my favorite job ever: working as a tour guide for the Longfellow National Historic Site. Located just outside Harvard Square on an old, tree-lined street, the Longfellow NHS is a grand, yellow house on a few acres of gardens with ancient lilac trees and gentle walking paths. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived there with his family for most of his life, and the house remains gently haunted and peaceful – a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. (Though now they’ve renamed it to include Washington’s Headquarters, because Washington slept there for about nine months. But in my mind, it will always be just Hank and Fanny’s.)

Anyway, one of the things I loved best about working there was that we had to learn as much as we could about the Longfellows and their lives in order to earn our docent stripes. And one of the most wonderful things about being a poet in 19th century Massachusetts was that you were in very good company. When Longfellow had a rough day with his quatrains, he could take a walk along the Charles River with his buddies Emerson and Hawthorne, or chat politics in his study with Charles Sumner, or get some excellent shade from perhaps the most epic frenemy of all time, Edgar Allen Poe.

You would think that in today’s world of high speed and instantaneous communications, the same sort of relationships would easily develop, albeit in a virtual world. Personally, I have a few, dear literary friends, but I don’t see them as often as I’d like. Sometimes, those instantaneous communications make it somehow harder to meet up with people more casually, to spend time in their company and listen to their unvarnished thoughts. I’m not sure anything can change that, for the moment, but one thing that enhances my sense of a literary circle is the habit I’ve formed over time of making an adoptive literary family tree. Clearly, I need a snappier name for it, but here’s how it works: I’ve identified those authors who, for whatever reason, shore me up when I’m feeling lonely or untethered as an artist. I don’t let the likelihood of whether or not they would pay me any mind if we actually knew one another, because this is my imaginary tree and I get to put whoever the *&%# I want to on it. Then I go and spend time with one of their works, and it really and truly helps. Right now, I’ve been visiting with Ann Patchett, that distant cousin I always want to know better but am content to adore from afar. Charles Dickens is always there, as some kind of great-grandfather watching over efforts to produce grand and funny and smart old-fashioned novels, especially those that contain brilliantly circuitous sentences that, like great puzzles, invite you to dive in and untangle their rewards. Longfellow is the somewhat dottering but sweet second cousin who’s always glad to see you; William Maxwell is the not-at-all creepy but quiet and gentle uncle who lets you sit in his company without talking; Elizabeth Bishop the lesbo aunt that takes no prisoners and makes you want to be just like her whenever she’s around. I could go on, because I’ve made sure my tree has tons of branches, but I think you get the idea.

So what I’m curious to know is: Do you have a literary family tree? Or just people in your ideal literary neighborhood? Please share! But fair warning: I might want to borrow a few of your seeds. Hope you don’t mind a little cross-pollination. (Ok, I get it, that’s enough punning for a Tuesday morning. I’ll leave off here.)

Does this Ego Make Me Look Fat?

I was having coffee with one of my dearest writer friends this weekend when the subject of ego came up. She is gracious and funny and ridiculously talented and accomplished, so I was surprised to hear her mention how much she struggles with Ego, too, that side of herself that can’t bear to look good and always be at her best. Let me tell you: Ego is a bigger buzz kill when it comes to creative work than Discouragement and Poor Self-Esteem put together. Working with Ego while you’re writing – or drawing or dancing or latch-hooking – is like having a pageant mom always breathing heavily over your shoulder, making you wear heels and makeup to the playground.

But if you’ve ever been proud of any work you’ve ever done, it’s hard to keep Ego from shouldering her way into the creative process of whatever comes next. She’s really tricky, too, coming in with nothing but praise for you and your potential, seeming for all the world like the kind of champion that cheers you on, not the one that would drown kittens to win The Gold. And there’s nothing you can do to get rid of her, no matter how hard you try, because she’s programmed into you from the get go. So, what to do?

I wish I could tell you how to get rid of her, but I can’t. I do think it helps to know she’s there, or that’s she’s almost always on her way. A stage mom never misses a performance – or even a rehearsal, for that matter. But maybe she doesn’t have to sit in the front row. Maybe you can build a nice, plush chair with purple velvet upholstery for her in the nose bleeders, and tell her she deserves the rest for all the inexhaustible work she’s doing on your behalf. Maybe you can remind her about the award you won for best depiction of Mozart in macaroni when you were in third grade; I don’t think she’s that fussy about the kind of wins you get – like an empty soul who lives for someone else, she is just hungry for wins of any kind.

I’m not sure if this is the way to appease her, but I do know that it’s vitally important that you don’t let her get close enough to whisper in your ear, because if she does, she’ll be digging her invisible talons into you when she does. But this is sometimes harder than it looks, because while she’ll be the first to go shouting your accomplishments from the rooftops, if you give her too much encouragement, she’ll soon be sneaking into your room in the middle of the night to whisper her unreasonable, unimaginative ideas in your ear.

And I have to say that nothing helps more than keeping that last little bit of information close at hand: namely, that she IS unimaginative – anyone who only wants to be #1 is going to have massive failures of the imagination. After all, who can really create under such conditions? I don’t believe there is such a thing as that legendary artist who believes in himself above all other things and creates unchecked by whatever feedback, criticism, or wonder comes his way. The truth is, I think creativity comes from compassion and caring deeply about the world around you – particularly when it comes to how our humanity gets expressed and discussed and interpreted by us all. So while I know Ego is always going to invite herself to the party – and usually shows up first – I find it does help to remind myself that she is not the most interesting guest, rarely even fun to talk to, and is best relegated to the tables in the back with my unreasonable second-grade music teacher and the dentist who put me in braces.

The Pit of Despair

I returned to writing this afternoon after a hiatus of a few days. My husband kindly offered to manage the house and kids on his day off while I took several hours after lunch to dive back into my latest project. Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly go as planned. Instead of disappearing into a blissful state of play and productivity, I took a wrong turn somewhere into the quicksand of the Internet and wound up in The Pit of Despair.

And yes, I’m borrowing from The Princess Bride (again?). I told you I was in the PoD. And sure, the first thing I want to do is throw my computer against the wall and dramatically give up writing for good and not consider for a moment that my depleted state might have something to do with a weekend in the sun and a few sick kids and a tickle that’s starting in the back of my own throat. Instead, because I somehow managed to arrive at adulthood with less than 100% of the recommended mental health, my earlier programming is telling me to just wallow, to read something into this sorry state of creative no-go, to sign a lease in the PoD and measure for curtains. Dark ones.

And the second thing I want to do is rise above, like a radiant, Oprah-infused, future candidate for sainthood who doesn’t get all tangled up in her leash. Who knows better. Who has the wisdom to pull back and reflect and find her sense of humor and purpose in one fell swoop. But the only problem with that is I am human.

So what’s a girl to do? Well, while I might be the only person on the planet who actually found a little comfort in the white-faced, shaggy haired denizen who introduces us to the PoD in the movie. “Don’t even think of trying to get out of here,” he says matter-of-factly, but I must say, it’s a fairly decent piece of advice. Sometimes, it’s much better to know that you’re in the PoD and not leap to conclusions. You don’t have to live there. You don’t have to leap out of there like you’re on fire. You can just survey the grounds, feel what you feel in there, and then walk out through a back door someone forgot to lock.

I’m sure PoD days are not for artists alone. It’s hard out there, for all of us, even if you’re living your dream, because living a dream means reaching beyond reality for something only you can see, and that can be lonely, stormy, uphill work. So I’m going to take a PoD day, call in sick to my muse, nurse this passing emotional flu with some family time and stupid TV and good food. Because this is the work, too – allowing for the humanity of it, the insecurity of it, the low points that make us able to reach out to others with compassion and empathy. It’s one thing to make a great thing, a greater thing to slow down and maybe comfort someone – even if it’s just yourself — in the process.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

It’s always heard as an insult, this particular piece of advice. It’s what we tell people who’ve gone out on a limb to seek some kind of fulfillment that doesn’t offer immediate pay or benefits, usually after their early efforts at fulfillment result in singing/dancing/writing/macramé that doesn’t sound/look/read/hold its knots together so well. It’s also yet another reason lining up behind the thousands that are collecting to take a shot at artistic exploration, like so many disproportionately hostile kids waiting to dunk their beloved teacher in a shallow tank of water. And like the other members in its gang, this reason has a kernel of truth to it. It makes a certain amount of sense to never quit the job that keeps a roof over your head and food on your table. More than a certain amount. And it’s also unlikely that artistic endeavors, no matter how successful, will provide quite so successfully.

But is this such an ugly truth? It’s true that the lens through which we view our lives can sometimes change how we live them. I grew up with a mother who could not afford to quit her day job, which was raising the four of us while my dad worked 60+ work weeks to provide the shelter and education they both wanted for us. And in this household, don’t quit your day job was not advice, it was an insult. It was what my mother told herself when she couldn’t make time to work at her writing, and the writing stagnated, or didn’t develop according to plan, or was never seen as something that could develop and improve just as certainly as children can. So when I started to write, and the writing didn’t look good, I walked away from it, certain there would never be a reason to quit my day job(s).

But then, in an ironic twist of fate, my day job became full time caregiver to my own three children – and something critical shifted in my thinking. I suddenly didn’t have as much time to write, so the time I had I used ten times better. I suddenly cared about something more than my writing, and it freed up my creativity and sense of play. I suddenly realized that being a writer was nowhere near as interesting as living a life worth writing about. Not quitting my day job, it turns out, made me a heck of a better writer than hours spent in ivory towers and libraries, mooning about talents I could only hope to have. And lo and behold, I wrote a book. Then another. Then a few more.

It has never been easy. I still fight against my demons almost constantly. But in a sense, my mother did me the favor of showing me how dangerous it can be to swallow common wisdom about what make a writer a writer, what makes a mother a mother, and so on. And if I think about it too carefully, it doesn’t make sense that I can be a mother to three children and still write novels – just like it doesn’t make sense to look at a bee and suddenly comprehend the alchemy of honey, or to look at a great stretch of land in Texas and know that the world is round. Time and perception are much more flexible than we usually let on, and there are great reasons for this. Some of those reasons may never make sense to us in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean they need to work against us. Just because we don’t understand something, or don’t have a clear understanding of what lies ahead doesn’t mean that we must be suspicious of it, demonize it before it’s even drawn close. Which makes me wonder what other kinds of perceptions we might shift toward greater kindness and creativity if we can shift the ones we make about ourselves.

Would You Date…Yourself?

I’m having a crisis of authorial faith. “Hey!” you might say, “maybe it has something to do with the strain of having seven children to look after yesterday and your mom recovering from double knee replacement and your husband having been at trial and your kids going back to school and you diving in to a new book!” OK, OK, you may (hypothetically, of course) be right. But humor me.

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is to write the book you want to read. It makes me imagine that there is this room deep in your imagination and memory where you keep all the books that have touched you indelibly. If you get really quiet, you can find your way there – avoiding the forests of anxiety and the caves of intimidation, of course, not to mention the beasts of bravado – and edge your way into some corner to sit down and write in solidarity and hope. It has, in fact, got me through many previous crises of faith (are you noticing a theme here?).

But here’s where it gets sticky: I want to read a book I will fall in love with. I always do. Yet this falling in love comes from a place of resonating with someone else’s story and voice and experience, getting the sense that, across the great black distance of time and space, a little familiar light you never knew was there is suddenly shining out to you. I want to fall in love with new ideas and artistry. And as much as it might have seemed for a hot mess of an existential moment when I was sixteen, I don’t want to fall in love with myself.

I don’t even think I can, as far as my writing is concerned. For one thing, it’s impossible to read your work without the writing informing it. It’s kind of like trying to see the back of your hair in a single mirror. Each sentence – and in some places, each word – of a book I’ve written is chock full of the experience of writing it. So I’m starting to believe that I can’t write the book I want to read. That I shouldn’t, and maybe can’t.

Yet all is not lost! Because just as I’m letting go of this one lovely piece of writing advice, I’m reaching for another. I can’t quite make it out clearly yet, but I think it has to do with writing the book that reflects your love of words, of stories, and most of all, of readers. I’ll let you know if I get any closer. For now, tell me your stories to keep me company while I’m reaching out – to keep us all company! Because another thing I’m starting to think is that writing is much more of an act of profound social faith than I ever thought.