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.

Purpose vs. Pleasure?

Over breakfast the other day, I took the liberty of informing my father that I was going to make it my mission to get him a hobby. I can do this because he can’t get rid of me and I love him enough that I don’t mind annoying him into happiness.

A little context: he turned 81 earlier this month, and has been retired for the past six years. Unfortunately, retirement hasn’t been all, er, fun and games for him. Not that any of us expected it would be. Pop decided he was going to be a doctor when he was seven years old, and he pursued that career with single-minded purpose until the day he retired at 75, when his four grown children and wife finally managed to pry his fingers from the blood pressure cuff. If it hadn’t been for the prospect of volunteering in the healthcare industry, I think he’d still be pottering around his office today, the usual cohort of impossible and charming older Jewish women trailing dotingly in his wake.

But as it turned out, he didn’t enjoy volunteer work. I think I understand why – he’d served in a certain healing capacity for so long, it rubbed him the rob way to be in the same environment with the same wealth of knowledge and a reduced ability to act on it. Still, there are other retirees who find or rediscover passions after their formal careers have ended. My dad, unfortunately, hasn’t been one of them.

I tried to peer deeper into his reluctance while he enjoyed his egg white and dry toast and I enjoyed my blueberry pancakes with bacon. I’ve been trying to get him to write for ages – he has a natural gift for storytelling, and a lifetime of incredible experiences to draw upon (he wasn’t just a doctor; he also immigrated to this country from Palestine in 1941 by boat, to mention just one other highlight of his long and full life). But he won’t write, or not for long.

“What’s the point?” he asked me. “I enjoy writing while I’m writing, but then what?”

“Why does there have to be a point?” I asked him.

He frowned into his coffee. “It’s like this,” he explained, “my whole life, I had a purpose. And now, even though I’m no different, what I do doesn’t matter anymore.”

I get it. My father comes from a family of High Achievers. And wrapped up in that high achiever mentality is the sense that the more you do, the more worthwhile you are. It’s impossible to escape this thinking in a society that is obsessed with titles and objects and labels. But what happens when you operate under that mentality and you retire or, say, realize that you have no business in academia and want to write stories, is that you come into this really barren and lonely place where you realize you’ve measured your self-worth against what you can offer, instead of what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. In other words, you hesitate to pursue what makes you happy because, somehow, that’s just not enough.

But how did we get here? Why isn’t our own fulfillment worthwhile? Are we really all so afraid that we’ll become narcissistic Trumpian pigs if we stop checking in with everyone else to see if they’re ok with what we’re doing? If we give into our passions, will we devolve into a society of self-absorbed, selfish individuals who just grab at whatever they want no matter what the cost or value?

It’s hard not to give into those middle of the night worries that tell us all these things might prove to be true. But in the clear light of day, I know there’s a big difference between the kind of thoughtless, immediate gratification we think of when we speak of giving into our passions, and the kind of life-affirming, deeply satisfying work we embrace and inspire when we focus on what’s meaningful to us. And I’m beginning to think that, as usual, when we go too far in the opposite direction, we begin to see the very results we jumped into extreme behavior to avoid. By marginalizing our own experiences of how we spend the lion’s share of our intellects and talents and energies, I fear those intellects and talents and energies quiet down and get very small.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to get my dad to write, or pick up his camera again, or value where his mind goes when it wanders. But I hope he does. If only because there’s nothing better than seeing the people you love follow whatever lights them up, even if it’s only for the moment.

The Art of Imitation

As you can probably guess from the title of this post, I’m not a believer in true originality. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we have been telling the same twelve or so stories since that first, fateful circle around a campfire, and that all of them are essentially around what I like to think of as the big four: love, loss, longing, and fear.

So I don’t toss and turn over originality when I’m writing, for this reason, and also because I believe that each storyteller has a unique voice. This is what I’m after when I read — a story that speaks to lived experiences, micro insights that gather together to help me see through someone else’s window into the big four. And because there are as many windows as there are people in the world, I know each writer has within her the ability to make hers clear.

What never ceases to amaze me, though, is how helpful the practice of imitation can be. I think it’s probably because, at their core, our subject matters don’t vary wildly, and if you pick up a book and absolutely love it, chances are that the writer is speaking from a window that resembles your own in some way.

I thought the first creative writing teacher to suggest that we should copy out a short story by our favorite writer was either nuts or just not so concerned about plagiarism (a subject my eighth grade teacher enforced with so much gravitas she had more than a few of us in tears (I know, how can the pitfalls of plagiarism drive middle schoolers to tears? Well, you never met Mrs. Stewart.)).

Anyway, I tried the exercise out, and was amazed by how helpful it was. Ever since, I keep trying to roll it out in front of my own students, though I get lots of crazy looks, too. But here’s the thing: when you transcribe the words of someone whose writing you deeply admire, it’s like peering through their window so closely you start to see the grains of sand, the tones and turns and timing and choices that he or she employed to make this fabulous work of art. And there’s tremendous learning in giving yourself over to another voice like that — it shows you the intersections, the significant diversions, and it inspires the HECK out of you. Seriously.

In fact, you’ll probably wind up writing a few pages or stories in the tone of that writer afterward. And then you’ll feel a little sheepish, a little shamefaced, thinking you got your story by unethical means. But there’s really no way you can copy another’s voice, just as there’s no way to copy another person’s appearance, or laugh. And what your imitation will show you is how your voice resonates with another, which will give you great comfort, and the experience of typing blithely when you’re transcribing will leak into your own work, and altogether you’ll have used this writer’s work for exactly what she wanted you to use it: to be inspired, to love the art of language, to see how the intersections of stories both complicate and unite us.

So in these last few weeks of summer, maybe you can bring yourself or a writer you love to try this exercise. As usual, it helps to drop your high standards at the door like so many heavy backpacks full of textbooks no one wants to read. Instead, take a few pages into the room and play with them. Don’t worry about how great the work will be or how imitative or how original. You’ll know your own voice when you find it, and if you keep light on your feet while you’re looking, you might just learn to dance to it.