20. Illegitimi Non-Carborundum

01/11/2018

Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, was the book that sparked my literary/artistic ambition to the point of making a rock-solid commitment to completing and publishing my book. Before that, I was just working on it quietly, privately, as a maybe-someday-author. But after that, I took the pledge, literally, out loud to myself one night before I went to sleep. I told God I would do it.

Well, lots of never-published-authors do that. That was important, but still safe. Then I read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and it resonated with my own life and mistakes, the circus-characters of my family and my expatriated state of Texas. (Her town in The Liars Club is a disguised Port Arthur Texas, where Janis Joplin was born and her troubled lonesome soul never really escaped from.) I went to hear Karr in one of those interview/conversations at an old hall at UC Berkeley, and that clinched it for me.

I had been genuinely writing my book, but still on the down-low. Anybody can do that. I realized that I had to take the leap into the abyss. I had to become A Writer, publicly, brazenly, and make myself emotionally bare-ass-naked to the world. OMG. From that moment, things started to change. The lens shifted, somewhere out in the universe a gear clicked, and it was scary as hell. Now I was no longer invisible; anybody could take a shot at me.

I took a few hits. I said ouch. But I had served eight years as a line firefighter a decade before, where I’d learned how to take a hit, get up quick, and get back on-task. But this was different. It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t bad reviews that stung, I didn’t get so many of those. What I got was, strangely, entirely unexpected subtle but discernible bad vibes from other writers. Veiled snarkyness.

We writers are a jealous lot. Hypersensitive and neurotically vulnerable, most of us. Perhaps it’s this artist’s temperament that enables us to receive profound meaning and God-sent talents of expression, that also makes us easy victims to insecurities and self-doubts. Sometimes we fall into something less than our truest and best selves.

Lately I’ve been learning and practicing the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. (It does take practice, like a foreign language.) It works like this:  When you feel yourself being snagged and pulled down by an emotion like jealousy, self-doubt, fear (the worst one) or any negative feeling, first, just notice it. Notice how it makes you feel bad/ uncomfortable/ unhappy, and you don’t like that. The action to take to change this circumstance is simple but effective. Admit it to yourself, (yes, I’m feeling like this) and then Let the feeling go. Push it away, and go on to something else you do like.

Easier said than done of course. So I devised a trick upon myself. (You could try it if you like, it might work for you.) I say, out loud, right in the middle of the feeling, “I don’t need this.” And then I visualize myself picking it up with two fingers, (like something nasty) putting it into a plain white business-size envelope, securely sealing the flap, and dropping it into the trash. Done.

I actually do feel noticeably better, lighter, and I feel like a real smarty-pants for so cleverly handling myself and refusing the annoying aggravation. I smile a smug little smile, think to myself, I win. And I go back to work.

The truth of the matter is that in the expression of the gift that has been given to you, no one else’s opinion matters as much as yours.  Every day remind yourself. Recognize, (“re-know”) and commit to this truth: This person may be either trying to help you, or hurt you. It doesn’t matter which, because nobody else can tell you how to be your best you, nobody else knows. You will find the answer inside yourself if you keep on seeking it. Everything else is not “the truth,” it’s an opinion. A perception. A different perspective. These can often be useful and valuable, as long as you don’t forget that they are not necessarily the truth.

When you get a disappointing response to a heartfelt endeavor, the problem is not that there’s anything about you that someone else should or could fix, the problem is that they didn’t know this. What they don’t know, as well as what they think, actually can’t hurt you unless you choose to let it. Don’t choose to let it. Don’t give in to doubts, misunderstandings, or insecure jealousies, and never give them squatters-rights in your mind. Get a big box of plain white #10 business envelopes…
(and be sure to empty the trash every day.)

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19. How To Learn To Write (Or Ski)

12/30/2017

        Essential Truths Number 1 and 2:              

When I was much younger than I am now, I wanted to become a firefighter.* Never mind why; it’s a long story. I was small compared to the male firefighter Wanna-Bes I was competing with. I went to the gym and pumped a whole lot of iron and didn’t get much bigger but I got  hecka-strong. (It took a while.) I applied at every fire department hiring opportunity that came up and took the tests. First is the written – easy enough if you study hard. (You should study really hard.) Next, if you pass the written, you get to take the physical agility test. I failed the physical agility tests of first three departments I tried for, at first by a mile, and then by inches, and finally by 2/10 of a second. I went back to the gym. I applied at more fire departments and took more tests. I failed another one. Maybe two. I forget now. Once I passed, It didn’t matter, I would pass some more…

I had to fail, to learn how. I had never encountered those kinds of challenges, or even those kinds of objects, lifting and carrying heavy rolls of fire-hose, climbing the 100-foot aerial ladder, dragging the 160-pound dummy through the tunnel. (At first I only weighed 115 pounds myself.) Very early I learned two Essential Truths, and I’ll share them with you in a minute.

There are wonderful things you can learn from Brooks, that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. But there are some things you cannot learn that way. You can’t learn how to play home-run baseball…   out of a book. You can’t learn how to downhill ski… out of a book. And you can’t learn how to be a firefighter and perform the skills a firefighter must do extremely well, very quickly, and absolutely reliably… out of a book. Here comes one of those Essential Truths I mentioned. (You may want to take notes.)

Essential Truth #1: The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.

Take downhill skiing, for example. The first day when you go out to the bunny hill with awkward boots and slats for feet, what’s going to happen? Right! You fall on your butt. Not once, but many times. And there will be people around who will see you fall on your butt. Little kids will laugh. Some adults will smile smugly. Others will be annoyed because you’re messing up the good snow with your sit-splats, besides getting in everybody’s way. “She shouldn’t even be here! She doesn’t know how to ski at all.”

The next day, you will again fall on your butt in front of everybody. A lot. But probably you will be doing a little bit better, and there will be thrilling moments when just for short distances, you get it, and miraculously, it works. It feels like flying! Your heart, for sure, is flying. Now when you fall, you get up quicker, you want some more of that good feeling.

By the third or fourth day,  your spirits soar more times, for longer moments, right before each time you crash clumsily again. But now you will be up more time than down, and though not exactly smoothly or elegantly, you are skiing!

We must expect the same from our writing.  In the beginning, it’s the beginning. While the first levels of success in skiing may take a few days, writing more likely will take a few years. We’re learning how to express our gift. For every great writer, there was a beginning. Thus, Essential Truth #1 about writing: The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Oh, and the skiing is fun too.

Essential Truth #2: Failure is a necessary part of the process.

Falling down is one of the first things we do in life. It is necessary, inherent, and valuable. Failure is how we learn what to do and what not to do. There is no other way.

Besides, we never learn as much from success as we do from failure. Therefore, allow yourself this. Expect to not be a brilliant writer right away. Expect a cartload of disappointments and possibly humiliations along the way. These do not prove you are un-brilliant. They only mark a serious commitment to the truest and best expression of whatever is your unique personal gift. It will be different from most people. Most people live their whole lives without expressing their truth, not because they don’t have any gifts, but because they don’t have the enormous courage it takes to do it.

Don’t be one of those. Fly down the hill, again and again. Fall on your butt with determination, and with embarrassed, wounded, but unconquerable pride, Get up.  Fall down. Get up, keep going. You can do this,  if you want it bad enough. Because if writing is truly your path, you will do it.
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*I did become a firefighter and served eight years with Alameda County OES Fire Department as a line firefighter and officer.
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