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Archive for the ‘Choosing yourself’ Category

The recent death of J.D. Salinger motivated me to read The Catcher in the Rye again, turning back to not only a great work of literature but to a part of my life that felt like a movie I must have watched rather than my own past. I found my dog-eared paperback in the basement and, upon opening it fondly, found  hundreds of penciled notes in the margins, most of which I couldn’t make out. Who WAS the person who took such copious notes? (Unlike the marginalia, I had neatly written the date on the fly leaf, 1974, just below my (then) maiden name.)

I couldn’t fathom why I would write so many explanations of the text, why I would circle and underline to such an annoying degree, and then it hit me: I didn’t just read Catcher in the Rye. I taught it! Oh right! I had taught college English off and on in a previous life. It sounded so academic and optimistic because that’s what I was — optimistic, certain I would teach and write for a living. But when faced with teaching composition to practical, world-weary non- traditional collegians, my confidence disappeared like the cash in Holden Caulfield’s pocket. One student said to me of Holden, “Oh why doesn’t he just get a job.”

There were many myths about Salinger the writer. Among them: he would hang each chapter on a clipboard and perch all the clipboards on nails inside his writing shed, so he could walk around and make a change here, another one there. I don’t know if this was true — I heard many other stories about him. But I wonder if I had written my journal on clipboards and if I could find clipboard  circa 1974, what would I change?  More detail, yes. A stronger voice, more dramatic plot points, and less ambiguity.

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I have developed what may be a bad habit: I keep turning down jobs. In the last year, I’ve turned down three offers and decided against applying for one position that had a great salary and magnificent benefits. That job was only 10 minutes from my house.

If he were alive, my father would be appalled. Actually, I’m kind of appalled at myself, given that I’m turning my back on secure income in the middle of the Great Recession. But every time I picture myself walking into an office, my stomach lurches and my palms slick with sweat.

It’s not impossible to work full time and write on the side. Thousands of people have done it. Great writers have done it, and great novels have been written under those late-night, bleary-eyed circumstances. But at this point in my life, taking a five-day-a-week job would feel like taking a stake in the heart.

I’ve done the work-all-day, write-sometime shuffle, but for the last two years I’ve had the freedom to write full time. To meet the mortgage payment, I sometimes work on projects that aren’t close to my heart. Even with that limitation, though, I have more freedom to write what and how I want, than I’ve ever had before.

And then, of course, there’s another reason why I’m staying on the freelance roller coaster: By risking my bank account and my retirement, I’ve forced myself to try everything I was afraid to try in the past. Because so much is at stake, I can’t afford to be hemmed in by fear or hesitation.

I approach every publication I used to shy away from. I force myself to write essays that used to seem too hard. I push forward on book proposals that used to be too daunting. To do otherwise is to risk failure and a busted bank account.

My path isn’t for everyone. When my son was little, I worked a regular job to provide him with security. When my debt was high, I went to the office 8 to 5, budgeted like mad and built up my savings.

But these days I’m blessed with freedom.

Is this lifestyle scary? Absolutely. Could I be forced into a job or bankruptcy? You bet. Do I feel like my current path is worth all the risks? Oh yeah.

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Don’t Write

The topic of my first post on a blog about the glories of writing might seem a bit odd, but I want to talk about the glories of not writing.

The dream of being a writer can be mesmerizing. When I taught at Michigan State University, I met students who seemed more enamored with the idea of living the dream, than with the actual act of writing. I also met many students who were miserable when they wrote.

I love writing. For me, writing is the pursuit of my right livelihood. I think I’ve attempted to chuck the writing life half a dozen times. At various moments, I’ve been disgusted by my uncertain income. At other times, I’ve been frantic over my uncertain abilities. But I’ve never been able to let go of writing because to do so would be to cut out a part of myself.

Writing, though, isn’t right livelihood for everyone, and there’s no shame in that. Being a writer doesn’t make me better than you. If you write and decide that you don’t like it, that’s more than OK, that’s wonderful. One’s right livelihood is about choosing yourself — not society’s daydream about a particular occupation.

So here’s my thought for the day: If you feel awful when you write, if you can’t find any aspect of the process pleasing, then don’t do it.

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I am reading a wonderful book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.  It might just as easily be titled “Choosing Yourself”.  

The book is about Resistance (his caps, not mine), which manifests itself as procrastination, unhappiness, fear, fundamentalism, and more.  The author describes it perfectly.  I saw myself in almost every page.  The second part of the book is about turning from amateur to professional, which is his way of overcoming Resistance.  And the third part is about the allies we have in the war.

I generally object to using a war metaphor.  I believe that we give energy to what we focus on, and I don’t want to give any energy to war in the world.  This metaphor works for me in this book, however.  Resistance is a seductive enemy, one I’ve dealt with all my life.  I welcome ways to help me out of its clutches.

The book is very short, and at first I gulped it down.  Now I’m going slowly, rereading and thinking.

I started reading it on Wednesday night, and I’ve worked on my novel each day since then.  That’s only three days, but it’s a good start.

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pubphoto11About a year ago, I had a writer’s version of the dark night of the soul, which, in my case, manifested in a Fedex truck spining its wheels in the mud of my yard. That truck was delivering back to me the manuscript of a novel I’ve been trying to publish since my teenager was in preschool, and it was being returned to me by yet another agent who, at first, loved it, and then, after a year of me doing all she asked in terms of revisions, found it boring.

When I saw the truck in the mud, driver ignoring my pleas to stop hitting the gas, I thought, “There I am!”  I also realized I needed a tractor to pull me out.

The tractor came in the form of a simply sentence my therapist said. I was lamenting to her about how my childhood dream wasn’t going true. I had thought, since I first started writing at age 14, that one day, a great publishing house would point its god-like finger at me, and say, “I choose you!” From then on, I would get published easily, my books would be read by millions, and my biggest problem would be deciding what to wear on Oprah. After years, decades actually, of paying my dues — helping and mentoring other writers, publishing newsletters and journals, organizing reading series and writing groups, and tossing out piles of rejection slips with an “Oh, well!” — no one was choosing me.

“What if the most powerful way of being chosen is choosing yourself?” my wise therapist asked.

Since that time, I’ve let that question work its way into how I see myself as a writer. After scouring off some of the superficial reasons for wanting to get published (fame! money! cocktail parties in penthouses!), I realized I wanted to truly share my gifts as a writer with people who would benefit from what I wrote. So I started sending my work out to smaller publishers, looking for ways to get poetry and fiction out locally, and tossing myself out there more as a writer instead of a person who does five million things, and oh, yes, also writes.

It’s amazing what a year, a lot of therapy sessions, several months of low-grade depression, two journals full of questioning, lots of talks with friends over hazelnut coffee, and some research on the internet and through other writers can do. In the past few months, my memoir on cancer, community and the earth was accepted by a small Midwestern publisher; my next poetry collection is coming out from a small, hometown press; I placed a few articles and poems; an anthology of writing about living with serious illness — that I’m editing — is being published by a not-for-profit organization, and I was recently named the next Poet Laureate of Kansas. Really! Okay, maybe this was a very good year, yet everything that’s happening feels clean and good.

The old dream dissolved into a new one: simply believing in my work enough to choose myself. And I find that whenever I share this story with others — writers, artists, academics, mothers, office workers or students — they tend to pause and stare hard at me. “Choose myself?” Then, just like I did, they smile and let that essential notion land in their lives.

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