Monthly Archives: August 2015

Brave

Originally published March 2, 2012, at Creative Dream Journals.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L. Doctorow

I had to start off with that quote because it’s the only way to be honest about my story. It’s too easy, with the conventions of narrative and memoir, to say, “I quit my career to pursue a creative life” or “I decided to move across the country and start a freelancing business” or “I decided that I would work part time for clients and part time on my own writing”—as if I had some kind of plan, as if these “decisions” were conscious conclusions born of logical analysis and practical reason rather than the unanticipated outcomes of inner prodding, sudden intuition, and continual experimentation.

The truth is messy, and E. L. Doctorow’s quote captures it perfectly. It’s an inspiring quote–it means you don’t have to have a plan, you don’t have to be able to see that far into your own future to be able to move forward. And it’s a daunting quote. As we all know if we’ve ever driven at night in the fog—perhaps on unfamiliar roads, perhaps through the mountains—it’s stressful. You have to be on high alert at every moment, paying close attention, all your senses at the ready to spot the truck that suddenly appears out of nowhere and the turn in the road that could either take you where you want to go or spin you off deeper into the fog.

In 2009, I left my stable career as a college professor and moved away from Ohio, where I had lived for six years. I had no plan. I had only a little savings. What I had were vague ideas. I had been thinking about this change for nearly four years, and I had devoted a lot of those four years to “What am I going to do?” in both its panicky and its practical forms. I had a sense that writing and editing might be good directions for me to go, and also that some kind of part-time or non-career-oriented (“working in a bookstore”) job might make sense, too. And that’s what I had: no plan, but a set of ideas that felt right.

Now, in 2012, I live in Austin, Texas, where part of my work is freelance editing and writing for clients, and part it is writing my first book, which I sold a couple of months ago to an excellent publisher for very little money. For the three years between then and now, I’ve been driving through the fog at night. Now the sun is coming up, but the fog hasn’t dissipated—or some other metaphor to say that I’m not, at the moment, in a state of high alert and abject terror, but I am still in transition. I still don’t know just where I’m headed. I still have ideas.

And so finally I come to the real topic of this post: Courage. Confidence. Bravery. Throughout this journey, kind people have sometimes told me that they think I’m brave. In response, I make my usual joke about the fine line between bravery and foolishness—or maybe I try to explain that I felt like I had no choice; that this was the only way forward for me. But I like hearing them call me brave, and I take it in. It’s good for me—a heroic version of my story to counter the sense of bewildered scrambling that’s my usual go-to.

This month, “brave” came together for me. Jamie Ridler, the owner of this blog, encouraged contributors to write about courage. Joe, a colleague from my professor days, visited Austin and told me over crepes that it was incredibly brave to break free from academia’s “find a job and retire there” culture, to think about what makes me happy, and to act on it.

And then what made it all click: two friends independently reframed the meaning of brave for me. In an e-mail message, Erika told me, “Your commitment to being who you are even when you have doubts, concerns, etc. is what real confidence looks like. Sounds crazy, I know, but the confident ones stay true to themselves even when doubt is present.” Colleen said, “People admire you for being true to yourself, even when it is hard. For expressing your feelings, even when there are tears. For saying what is on your mind, and for thinking deeply about your life and what it means.”

All this, and Erika’s and Colleen’s words especially, have made me rethink brave. They’ve made me rethink insecure, too. Usually, when people say “brave,” “courageous,” or “confident,” I picture some kind of Prince Valiant, dauntlessly going forward with his chest out and his mind clear, certain in his every action and decisive in his opinions. Or maybe I picture a runway model, poised and commanding: “You will admire me.” But that’s not what “brave” is. That’s not even what “confident” is. Not for me, not now.

Years ago, at her PhD defense, my sister Leslie took the opportunity to thank the many people who had helped her along the way. I remember her thanking our parents for their love and support and then adding, with her wry smile, “I just thought of this—I’d also like to thank my parents for a certain stubbornness that I think has served me well in graduate school.”

I think that for me, that “certain stubbornness”—a family trait whose friendly face is perseverance, dedication, focus, and commitment—is what brave looks like. The kind of brave I am, the kind of confident I am, comes with a variety-pack of fear, including insecurity, uneasiness, terror, worry, hypervigilance, panic, self-consciousness, and fun-filled images of “old, sick, alone, and broke”–or worse, “burden to my family.”

But I’m stubborn. I stick with it anyway. I have an inner pull toward authenticity that won’t let go; I’d disappear without it. The path of courage, of confidence, of bravery, for me, isn’t about going forward fearlessly. It’s about going forward stubbornly—continually returning to the path, continually finding new ways to return to it in the face of life’s obstacles. I just have to, so I do it. I find a way.

Brave isn’t what you feel—it’s what you do. You feel fear, you experience doubt, and you pay attention to what they tell you. But fear and doubt don’t run the show. You do. You’re true to who you are, and you do what you know to be right for you. You drive through the fog at night because the road calls you. You’re yourself—your whole self. And you’re brave.

Feedback: What’s helpful at different stages of a creative project?

Originally published January 19, 2012, at Creative Dream Journals.

Valuable feedback

For me, valuable feedback comes from people who are totally on board with what I want to do and just want to help me do it. This is the kind of feedback I try to give to other writers. I think of myself as on the writer’s side—their ally—and my goal is to figure out what they’re trying to do and help them do it.

The contrast—feedback that isn’t that helpful to me—comes from people who position themselves as challengers. Sometimes, challengers might question the value of the project or disagree with the way I’m thinking about it. Other times, their feedback might be along the lines of “Why don’t you do what I want you to do, or what I find valuable, or what I would do if it was my project, or what I’m used to seeing from other writers?”

When I’m working on a creative project, I’m interested in developing it, not altering it to be something different. Just like a person—human beings are better off when you support them as they more fully become their own unique, amazing selves.

Feedback at the beginning of a project

In the beginning stages of a creative project, I’m very very selective about who I seek feedback from. A new original project is like a little sprout making its way up from the ground, powerful with potential, but vulnerable. It needs warmth and care and time to grow solid and strong. In the early stages, the only feedback that’s helpful to me is “What a cool idea; here are some possible resources for you.”

At the beginning, a project is really between me and me. There’s something I’m trying to figure out and develop within my own mind and spirit. My engagement with the outside world is all about exploration—taking things in that help me learn. The feedback that matters is internal: What’s speaking to me? What feels promising? What’s drawing my attention? What do I see in the outside world that resonates with what I’m trying to figure out?

Feedback at the end of a project

The moment I’m in right now is the end stage of a project. I have a book that I started long ago, and I’m fortunate to have a publisher for it; now my job is to finish writing and revising it for publication.

At this stage, I know what I want to say, my ideas are solid and well-formed, and the project is fully fleshed out. I’ve learned what I wanted to learn, I know what I think, and I’m confident about it. Now, the project is to communicate what I’ve learned and what I think to other people.

At this stage, feedback feels like collaboration. I’ve been honing this project mostly on my own, and now other people are invested in it. My editor, and the press he represents, have years of experience and expertise in helping books reach readers—helping people communicate. So when he tells me, “I think you should make x, y, and z changes,” a little voice inside me says, “I don’t want to. It’s my project, and I like it as it is.” But a stronger voice now says, “I want to communicate. I want to reach my audience. And this person has ideas about how I can do that effectively. Excellent!”

Communication isn’t the same as self-expression. Communication is about reaching people, and it’s cooperative. The image in my head is an equation: feedback = audience. My editor is representing a particular audience, a particular set of people who we both hope will buy and read my book. To communicate with my readers, I have to think about where they’re at, and how I can share my ideas with them in a way that they will find compelling.

I still hold on to the core of my vision. It’s almost impossible not to at this point, because the book has grown up into something solid—it has its own reality now. But it’s solid enough now to interact with the outside world, and that means conversation and relationship. Now, feedback means that I’m connecting, I’m communicating, I’m reaching other people. And in the end (but maybe only in the end) that’s what I want my creative work to do.

Creative Dreams and Money (raw beginnings)

Originally published November 14, 2011, at Creative Dream Journals.

I want to write to you about money and creative callings. But this topic is so full and so present for me that my thoughts and questions don’t yet cohere into anything like a focused blog post. The place to begin, then, is with my disparate thoughts and questions. For now, I’ve organized them just enough to give you some broad categories. Please chime in! What are your thoughts and experiences on any of these topics, or on the broad topic of money and creative dreams?

The Day Job

  • Day jobs and the creative process. Creativity happens during down time, when our minds are free to wander. We get our best ideas during breaks from periods of focused effort. We work hard on our creative project, and then we take a nap or a shower or a walk, and ideas come to us. But when we’re working a day job, our minds can end up devoting all that great unconscious creative energy to the concerns of the day job rather than to our own creative projects. Creative work, then, requires us to free our minds from our day jobs. It requires us to take a mental break from our paid work, then shift focus to our creative project, then take a break from it to allow our ideas to gestate, then return to focused work on our creative project, and then return to our day job. How do we manage our lives so that we can do all that?
  • The happy day job. How do we find or create day jobs that we love, that feed our creative lives, or even day jobs that we just like well enough and that don’t take away from our creative lives?
  • Self-employment as a day job. If you’re self-employed in your day job, how does that affect your ability to pursue a separate creative calling?
  • Distributing our energy. We can put our energy into finding or creating or developing or tailoring our day jobs so that they support us financially and creatively. And we can put our energy into developing our creative careers so that we can earn money from them. And we can put energy into actual creativity—writing, painting, dancing, making music, however we express ourselves creatively. How do we decide where to focus our attention on any given day, week, month, or year?

Making Money from Creative Work

  • Money dreams. “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” How has this dream played out for you?
  • Creating and business. If you’re trying to earn money from your creative work, how do you manage the different requirements of creating your art, music, or writing versus running a business that sells your art, music, or writing?
  • Different logics. Often, being in business involves being strategic and goal oriented. We might develop marketing strategies, work to establish ourselves as leaders, set goals, and prioritize sales. The creative process often involves a more process-oriented logic: we follow the muse, go where the project leads, do what’s intrinsically motivating, and allow things to unfold naturally. When does it make sense to follow which kind of logic?
  • Self-employment as a creative worker. How do we learn how to sell our creative work and manage a business built around our creative work?
  • Hiring help. When do we hire help with the business side of creativity, and what kind of help do we hire?

Money, Creativity, and the Life Cycle

  • Waiting for retirement. What happens when you postpone seriously pursuing your creative work until retirement?
  • Parenting. If you’re pursuing a creative calling, keeping a day job, and parenting, then you’re working three careers. How do you manage?
  • Gender, marriage, and family. What’s it like to pursue a creative calling as a single/married woman/man with/without children?
  • Age, creative work, and money. What’s involved in being a “starving artist” in your 20s versus in your 40s or your 60s?
  • Different strategies for different parts of the journey. How do we structure our creative careers differently as our lives change? For example, at different points of our lives, we might pursue a creative calling full time, we might go into debt to support a creative calling, we might work unrelated day jobs, or we might pursue careers that put our creative skills and talents to work on other people’s projects.

Struggle and Costs

  • Debt. When do we go into debt to pursue our creative dreams? What kind of debt do we accrue? How do we manage debt?
  • Managing time and energy. Pursuing a creative calling and a day job means pursuing two careers, in addition to our personal lives. How do we manage our time and energy so that we’re meeting our needs and staying happy and healthy?
  • Financial worry. When our creative callings cost money, or send us into debt, or entail the uncertain income and increased costs of self-employment, we can get into a habit of worry. What do we do about this?
  • Learning by example. Sometimes, the stories we hear about creativity and money run to extremes: it’s all either “starving artists” or “the universe pays me to do what I love.” But many creative people’s journeys are more complex than this. What true stories have you heard? What stories could you tell?
  • Compromise. Sometimes we compromise our creative dreams for increased financial stability. Sometimes, we compromise our financial security for the sake of our creative dreams. Our day jobs may feed our creative work or take away from our creative work or both. How much of these different kinds of compromise is wise? How much is necessary?
  • Work that costs money. While we hope to make money from our creative work, initially it often costs money, and this period of investment can go on for a long time. How do we decide how much money to invest in our creative dreams?
  • Faith and trust. What roles do faith and trust play in the serious pursuit of a creative calling? How do you nurture your faith? What enables you to trust? Are you ever reluctant to trust that things will be okay? Is it ever unwise to act on faith? Are you ever better off not trusting and not having faith?

 

Am I following my bliss if I don’t feel blissful?

Originally published October 29, 2011 at Creative Dream Journals.

Many of us who are following a creative calling resonate with Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss.” But following your bliss doesn’t always feel blissful. How do you know when you’re on the right track and when it’s time to rethink?

I used to be a professor, and now I’m involved with online communities of people who pursued an academic calling and for different reasons are reconsidering that path. Many of these people have come to resent the “follow your bliss” mantra. It was given to them as career advice, and many of them heard it like this: “You’re passionate about French literature (or East Asian history, or ethical philosophy), so pursue that. Keep studying that, get your PhD, and a career as a professor will come together for you.” They followed that advice, imagining a glorious future immersed in the life of the mind. But then things started to go wrong. Maybe graduate school was a nightmare. Maybe the academic job market was so tight that after years of trying, they were never able to get a job as a professor. Maybe they were able to get that job, but found themselves miserable in it. Maybe they eventually lost interest in their field of study and felt stuck in a career that didn’t speak to them any more. Where was the bliss they were promised? Wouldn’t they have been happier if they had done something more practical?

Following a creative calling, too, can bring up questions about the bliss factor. Maybe I love making art, or writing, or singing, but to pursue it seriously, I have to compromise other things that make me happy. How much sacrifice is worth it? A touring musician might give up the stability of home and family to keep on pursuing a musical calling. An artist might work a string of day jobs that drain her energy to support the art that feeds her soul. A writer might sacrifice her personal life so that she can work full time and finish her novel on nights and weekends. An actor might find himself in middle age and without any kind of financial stability because he prioritized his unpaid or poorly paid creative work.

So what becomes of bliss? Is following your bliss a cruel joke?

The only answer I know is to use that word “bliss” as a kind of navigational tool, like a compass. We have to keep on returning to it, keep checking in, keep adjusting our course. We have to remember what following our bliss really means—to remember that French literature, or being a professor, or publishing a novel, or making a living as actor, is not the real goal. The real goal really is bliss: happiness, creative fulfillment, self-expression, and a rich life that nourishes all of who we are.

So we make sacrifices to pursue what we love—we take risks, we give up resources, we endure training, we confront fears. But we consistently check in with ourselves. Am I happy? Do I feel like myself? Do I have what I want and what I need? I know what I wanted a year ago, but what do I really want now? And if things feel off, then we adjust course.

Adjusting course probably doesn’t mean giving up the things you love. Instead, it means finding ways to have all the things you love. So you keep on reading French literature, or teaching, or making art, or acting. But you don’t sacrifice the rest of your life to do that–you remember that you’re a whole person with your own unique human needs, and you tend to all of them. And you don’t assume that there’s only one way to be happy doing what you love, or only one career path or lifestyle that will allow you to do what you love. You use your creativity and your support system to make for yourself a life that incorporates all the things you need and love. It’s hard work. But if you keep on adjusting course, keep on checking in with yourself and taking your needs seriously, and keep on making real happiness your priority, then maybe the bliss will be in the journey.

What are your experiences following your bliss?

A Treasure Chest of Your Past

Originally published October 5, 2011 at Creative Dream Journals.

Some interviewers are truly excellent at getting to the core of the person they’re interviewing. Not long ago, I saw an interview like that—the interviewer, Isabelle Giordano, was so thoughtful about her questions that she was able to get to the heart of the person she was interviewing. As a bonus, the interviewee was Johnny Depp, who’s terrifically thoughtful. You can check out this 1993 interview here and here.

Midway through the interview, Giordano opened a bag and started pulling out things that she knew would have meaning for Depp—CDs, particular movies, books, photos, and other things that represented his passions or turning points in his life. He said “This is like Christmas!” By asking him to reflect upon these “Christmas presents,” she connected him, herself, and viewers with his inner life, with what’s meaningful to him, with the foundations of his identity and his creativity.

A treasure chest of meaning. What if we all had our own treasure chest full of life’s gifts to inspire us and remind us who we are and what matters to us?

So I composed my own. What would be in my treasure chest? What people, books, things, places, and images would I want to gather together to represent the important parts of my life history?

Here are a few of the things I came up with:

  • A picture of Nepal, where I lived for three months during college
  • Tubes of oil paint
  • A photo of my oldest niece, who I took care of when she was a baby
  • A picture of Devil’s Lake State Park, in Wisconsin, where I used to go a lot during graduate school to think and to get inspired
  • CDs of Bill Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell, which inspired my first book
  • Tama Kieves’ book This Time I Dance, which was a spiritual lifeline when I was crumbling out of my old job and wanting to go in a completely different direction that I couldn’t foresee
  • Monet’s “haystacks” series of paintings
  • A postcard of my college

The list goes on—my favorite music at different points in my life, a couple of movies that affected me deeply, people who inspire me, things that have meant something to me.

If you like this idea, you could make your own list like this. You could write about what the different things in your treasure chest mean to you, and you could even gather everything up and put it in a box to leaf through sometimes for recollection, re-centering, and creative inspiration.

How to Be a Fangirl (or boy)

Originally published September 11, 2011, at Creative Dream Journals.

I have been a fangirl my whole life. At the age of four, I began a three-year obsession with The Monkees. I could sing all their songs by heart. Every afternoon, I sat wide-eyed and mesmerized by reruns of their TV shows. I daydreamed about The Monkees.

Now I’m forty-one, and I’m still like this. Mostly musicians, sometimes actors, occasionally authors. Mostly men, occasionally women. They captivate me for a while, and I listen to their music over and over, watch all their movies, memorize their books, and spend hours searching YouTube for interviews with them.

But I’m proud of my fangirldom, because I know exactly what I’m doing. Once upon a time, when I was very young, I heard this advice: “Women should become the men they want to marry.” I thought this was brilliant. Because what we’re drawn to, what we’re attracted to, is really ourselves—deep, essential dimensions of ourselves that we want to more fully integrate.

So my obsession with The Monkees was about humor and energy and friendship. My teenage obsession with David Bowie was about crossing boundaries—breaking out of old confines and moving into forbidden territory. In my twenties, The Beatles were all about my creativity—some colorful, right-brain freedom to let my mind wander and create beauty. Right now, I’m cultivating a sense of centeredness, confidence in expressing my own unique perspective, authority over the conditions of my life, and a natural commitment to my own truth—and I can tell you anything you want to know about Johnny Depp.

So how to be a fangirl? Just give in, as you would to any other passion. Find the people who draw your attention, the people you admire, and immerse yourself. Absorb them. Find out what it is about them that’s so captivating, and know, without a doubt, that those qualities are your own. They’re who you really are—the aspects of you that you want to more fully express, the colors of you that you want to brighten, your greatest gifts and truest purposes, about to come into the sun.