Dating and Relationship Books that Don’t Suck, Episode 2: Attached

THE BOOK: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, by Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A.

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: Two big reasons.

Reason 1: The American culture of romantic relationships lives in an uneasy tension between the “You complete me” of Jerry Maguire and the “Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping/Stand together yet not too near together” of Kahlil Gibran. Either we’re incomplete without a partner or we’re two sturdy oaks who happen to share a lawn. The “We’re two independent people who take care of ourselves and don’t need each other” lie was an overcorrection for the 1950s pop song “I can’t live without you” lie, but they’re both lies.

Attached calls out the Gibran/independence lie. Any social scientist can tell you that we’re not independent—we’re sustained and constituted by connections with other people from before birth till after death. We’re social creatures. Attached focuses in on romantic pairs, drawing on biopsychological evidence to make it clear that when two people become each other’s main person, they become an interdependent unit at a fundamental level, and that’s a good thing. We’re wired for attachment; the care and nurture of relationships is important, valuable, and a worthwhile focus of attention; we need to be able to depend on each other emotionally; and we need to take responsibility for safeguarding and promoting each other’s well-being—especially our well-being in the relationship, our well-being in relation to each other.

Attached is a big YES to attachment, connection, relationships, bonds, interdependence, closeness, intimacy, and love.

Reason 2: I first learned about attachment styles in college, but it was kind of a multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank understanding of them. I learned enough to guess that I probably had an anxious attachment style, but then it was “Oh well, that’s the breaks.” Not even my fancy liberal arts college, with its noble mission of educating the whole person, broke the intellectual mold to help us learn to do things like live and be happy.

Attached makes the psychology of attachment personally relevant and helpful. It outlines the three main attachment styles, and the best way to think of these, in my view, is as patterns in what stresses you out in relationships and what feelings and behaviors those stresses trigger in you.

Some of us are sensitive to signals that our significant other is withdrawing, doesn’t value us, or isn’t that into us. We might react in a variety of patterned ways: pursuing the person by calling a lot and trying to keep them close; withdrawing in turn as if to say “you can’t take me for granted”; swallowing our own needs and feelings and letting the other person lead the relationship and determine the amount of closeness; exploding in accusations, anger, or tears; obsessing about the relationship; or panicking. This is the anxious attachment style, and people with this style are susceptible to insecurity in their relationships: they tend to see good matches as few and far between and good relationships as rare and precarious. They fear that conflict will mean the end of the relationship and that if they express their feelings and needs their partner will decide they’re not worth the effort and walk away. These folks tend to blame themselves for relationship problems and see their intimacy needs as invalid, supported by a culture that valorizes independence.

Others of us get triggered by intimacy itself, fearing that closeness means sacrificing our independence and self-sufficiency. Intimacy feels like an encroachment, so we respond by distancing: maybe we criticize our partner, go silent, avoid learning about how our partner sees the world, avoid sex or try to keep it unemotional, or physically withdraw. We might express ambivalence about the relationship, going hot and cold, alternating between presence and absence. Or we might aim for a “this close and no closer” stasis, trying to keep our partner exactly at arm’s length—far enough to feel safe and unaffected but close enough to keep them from drifting away. This is the avoidant attachment style, and people with this style are susceptible to exactly what the anxious person fears—walking away in the face of conflict and disregarding their partner’s relationship needs as invalid. People who lean avoidant sometimes ground their self-esteem in the sense of being more independent than others and for this reason are often drawn to partners with an anxious style. People who lean avoidant are only about 25% of the population but are overrepresented in the dating pool, especially at older ages.

And then there’s the secure attachment style. The secure among us are just confident when it comes to attachment. We feel good about intimacy and closeness and seek it out but also have an innate sense that it’s a normal part of life. We assume that we can express our full range of feelings and needs in our relationship, and we do so; we assume that we can count on our partner to care about our feelings and needs and to be responsive when we express them; and we assume responsibility for meeting our partner’s expressed needs, too. We don’t especially fear either losing our independence or losing the relationship, short of some natural disaster, and we take responsibility for helping keep the relationship strong. For people with a secure attachment style, closeness breeds more closeness in an easy and natural kind of way, rather than in a cycle of withdrawal or possessiveness. People who lean secure tend to stay in their relationships and sometimes stay in unhealthy relationships too long because of their sense of responsibility for the other person and the relationship. That means they’re underrepresented in the dating pool, but the good news, if you’re looking to date one, is that the majority of the population does lean secure, so they’re out there.

The glory of the book and its purpose is that it helps people who lean anxious or avoidant become more secure, and it helps people in the dating world screen for people who can meet their needs for intimacy and independence. Anxious-avoidant relationships are both common and not ideal, because each partner can trigger the other into a cartoon-like version of its own attachment style. But it only takes one secure partner to make a secure relationship: when someone who leans anxious or avoidant gets into a relationship with someone who’s secure, the insecure partner becomes more secure, and everyone’s happier.

The book has whole chapters about anxious-avoidant relationships and about effective communication of feelings, wants, and needs, which secure people are good at and both anxious and avoidant people can have trouble with but can learn and get a lot better at with the help of models and examples like the ones in this book.

What I got out of it: I studied this book. I read it quickly, then I read it again slowly; I did the exercises; I took notes; I had thoughts; and I took notes on my thoughts. There’s a lot here, and if you lean anxious or avoidant, it’s worth reading, rereading, and highlighting.

I found that my college intuition was right—I do lean anxious—but also that I’m a lot more secure than I realized and that I’ve become more secure as I’ve aged. In fact, it takes pretty particular circumstances to trigger my anxiety. Conveniently(?), I was in the middle of just such a circumstance when I first read this book. I applied the principles and tips, and…. it worked! Things smoothed out; I felt better; the relationship stayed healthy.

Attached gives me a feeling of hope because it presents secure attachment in such a natural, concrete way that it feels attainable, as if that healthy relationship is out there just waiting for me. This feeling dwindled somewhat when I realized that attachment issues probably aren’t my main obstacle to finding a good relationship, at least at this point in my life—it really is, first and foremost, about the challenge of needing to meet a lot of people to find a good match, because, as Attached confirms, there many more bad matches out there than good ones, especially as you age. But Attached also argues that there are a lot of good matches out there, and that’s why you have to date a whole lot of people—to find the good ones. So in the midst of the second-job-like effort of dating, I’m still comforted—and now I have new tools not just for dating, and not even just for romantic relationships, but for all my relationships.

 

 

 

Dating and Relationship Books that Don’t Suck, Episode 1: It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, by Sara Eckel

Image of the cover of It's Not You by Sara EckelAbout a decade ago, I was changing careers. It was a life crisis—I’d been in academia my whole life, didn’t want to be a professor anymore, and had no idea what else I could do that might be happier. So, being a researchy kind of person, I looked for good books, articles, and online resources that could help me. I found a lot. Inspiration, information, introspection—it was all out there waiting for me to mine it, and though it didn’t leave me with certainty about what to do next, it did leave me with great ideas about what I might want to do and how to navigate the process of making this change. It gave me a good ground to stand on.

Now the career change is behind me, and I’m happily ensconced in my freelance life. On to the next task: love. I want to find a relationship (in my case, with a man). So I’m dating. I have good feelings about online dating: I met my previous boyfriend of five years on my second online date. It won’t take long to find someone, right? Wrong. It’s taking a while. It’s not so easy. So, being a researchy kind of person, I look for good books, articles, and online resources that could help me. There aren’t any. There’s a ton of material out there, but apparently our finest minds aren’t dedicating themselves to the topic of dating the way they are to the topic of career change.

And that leads me to this, the first in a series I’m calling:

Dating and Relationship Books that Don’t Suck

I have two books in this category so far, and two more possibles, and enough optimism to call that the beginnings of a list. Even better, I can supplement this series with two related ones:

  • Online Resources about Dating and Relationships that Don’t Suck
  • Ideas about Dating and Relationships that Don’t Suck, Most of Which I Originally Got from Other People’s Writing and Maybe Developed Further on My Own (probably a shorter title for that one)

I’m striving for shortness with these, because you and I are both busy, so maybe this will be the longest post, since I just spent four paragraphs introducing the idea. Now on to the first book.


THE BOOK: It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, by Sara Eckel

WHY IT DOESN’T SUCK: It’s Not You is the first book in this series because it’s the foundation of everything to come. There’s a big culture out there—at least in women’s dating—designed to make you think that if you reach a Certain Age and are still single, either you’re doing something wrong or there’s something wrong with you. There isn’t. It’s a lie. You’re fine.

You know how I know this? I read Sara Eckel’s book, which goes through all the contradictory reasons you tell yourself or others tell you you’re still single and shows, using research and logic, why none of these reasons hold water. For example: You Have Low Self-Esteem. You’re Too Intimidating. You’re Too Desperate. You’re Too Independent. You’re Too Picky. You Don’t Know What You Want. Yadda. Yadda. And yadda. But the most important one is the big tent one: You Have Issues. The culture of “You Need to Change” pretends to us that a good relationship is the Great Reward at the end of a long journey toward self-perfection.

It’s a lie. You know how I know this? I read Sara Eckel’s book. Which I’m not going to quote or look back at to make sure I’m being precise or anything—we’re both busy, remember? And besides, what matters in this Very Subjective Series I’m beginning is what stuck with me enough that I can, as we had to do in third grade, put it in my own words.

So what stuck with me is this: Look around at all the people you know who are in healthy, happy, long-term, romantic relationships. Are they perfect? Have they solved their issues? Did they have to “work on themselves” to find their partners? No! They didn’t. They lucked out. Most of them, if they’re reflective types, “work on their issues” in the context of their healthy relationships.

Most of your friends, according to my very scientific survey of my friends, met their partners in school, where we were all surrounded by singles our age. Most of the rest met later, online or in a bar. Some few met just in life. If you’re not lucky enough to have met a great match for you in any of these ways, what should you do?

Keep going. Take breaks when it gets to be horrible, which it certainly does. But generally just keep going. Keep meeting people. Keep being your creative, resourceful, and authentic self, and keep looking for someone you like to talk to and also touch and who feels the same way about you (as I think Eckel said, but I can’t find it on a cursory search, so it may have been Susan Piver, whose book I was reading at about the same time).

Back to why I wanted to talk about this book first. A lot of my other posts about dating and relationships will be advice on things we can do differently. But that doesn’t mean that any of them are Things Wrong With You or Things You’re Doing Wrong that are keeping you from being in a great relationship. They’re just things we can do.

After all, personal growth helps us grow as persons and facilitates healthy relating and overall happiness. But it comes from a foundational understanding that we’re really fine—in fact, we’re amazing. And one of the things that makes us amazing is that we like to understand and entertain a broad range of ways of thinking and acting and critically incorporate them into our lives (see the discussion of reflexivity in my book—and check how I worked a reference to my book in there without even trying! Go me.).

So that’s book #1, and maybe these posts will be longer than I expected. And that’s okay. You know how I know it’s okay? I read Sara Eckel’s book. Okay maybe that’s not really why, but it’s all in the family.

 

How I Learned to Let Go and Love 2017

When I left my career as a professor and started my life over in 2009, it was partly an exercise in taking charge. I moved to a new city and left behind a career, friends, colleagues, an ex-boyfriend, and all the parts of my identity associated with these things, and I was going to create new versions of all of them from scratch.

So began my project-driven life. I had spent years going where the school or job was, making friends with whoever was there, wrapped up in academia, and being mostly at the effect of my career and my local circumstances. Now everything was blank. I had enormous freedom — and enormous responsibility. I had a notebook divided into sections with multiple to-do lists for my various build-a-life projects — Job, Book, Home and Community, Boyfriend, Self. It was the first of many such notebooks and lists.

I began a ritual, at the end of every year, of writing in my journal answers to a list of thirty-some questions about the year that was ending and the year to come. I had compiled the list from similar ones from different life coaches I’d worked with, and it included questions like these: “What were some of your favorite moments this year?” “Who was significant in your life?” “What are you proud of?” “What do you wish to celebrate?” “What did you enjoy doing this year that you’d like to do more of?” “What do you want to stop doing or let go of?” “What new opportunities are available for the coming year?” “What would you like to invite into your life next year?” “What would you like to accomplish?” and “What would you like to be celebrating next December?”[1]

It’s always been a good ritual for me — a chance to reflect, take stock, think about my priorities, and realign myself with the things that matter to me. Each year, I’ve found themes in my answers to the different questions, and I’ve used those themes to orient myself to the coming year — to what I wanted to do, create, think about, emphasize, and be.

I did the ritual of the questions early this year, finding myself with some unexpected down time on a pre-Christmas weekend. But this year, it was different. The assumption behind all these questions, the assumption behind my project-driven life for the past eight years, flew out the window in 2017. I had done one or two things out of my own will, desire, and effort — I’d made a couple of helpful changes in how I organized my finances and my apartment. But mostly, this was not a year about me doing things. This was a year about things happening — to me, to my friends, my family, and my country. Larger forces were at work — love, illnesses, injuries, hurricanes, eclipses, beginnings, endings, and a national government whose unresponsiveness to its citizens was now fully out in the open.

It’s human nature to see patterns and connections, and the political scene once again seemed to reflect my personal scene. The government had become unmoored from the will of the people; my life had become unmoored from my own will, focus, and direction. The big things just happened — bad things, then better things; tragedies, then reprieves; stretches of stability, then sudden decline; moments of great joy, cycles of depression, periods of serenity and then of exhaustion — like the ebb and flow of the ocean; like the seasons; like life.

The down side, of course, is learned helplessness — that sense we all get sometimes that our efforts don’t matter, that nothing we do makes much difference in the direction things take. Most of my answers to the question “What do you want to be celebrating next December?” have been the same each year; only one or two of those celebrations have taken place; only one or two of those goals have I been able to check off the list as done.

But the up side of acknowledging my supporting role in my own life this year is the relief that always comes with voicing the truth and the additional relief of giving up responsibility. The whole world is not, after all, on my shoulders, and neither is the work of determining my life. It’s just as incomplete to focus only on my own personal efficacy as it would be to pretend that I’m powerless and totally without a voice in the bigger chorus of crickets and souls.

I still organize my life by projects. Next year’s are familiar categories that I’ve learned over time reflect some of my strongest priorities — the ones I can’t take for granted and the ones I can’t check off my list and mark “done”: Money, Love, Creativity, Happiness.

Commitment, I’ve always thought, is the things you come back to. Life happens, distractions carry you off course — that’s just a part of living. But commitment means coming back to the things you know are important to you, and coming back over and over. I pursue my projects in these four areas of life partly because I want the goals — I want the great romantic relationship; I want the financial security; I want a fulfilling creative life; I want to consistently do the things that I know make me happy. But partly I pursue these projects because that’s just what I do — that’s integrity, for me; that’s living my own life, being myself, sending my voice out into the chorus, and taking a Kelly-sized stand for the things that matter to me.

In the case of politics, I’m actually more optimistic, because I see that the stand I can take is not just Kelly-sized, but revolution-sized. This is the glory of working with local groups and national networks of people who think like me. When it comes to the government, I can see the effect that we’re already having. I can see the progress. It just takes a while, a while, and a longer while to get to the national level. Patience and consistency, grasshopper, and coming back to the good work again and again.

When I wrote those last two paragraphs, I thought I was going from small to large — from me and my little, individual life to us and our collective life as a citizenry. It’s a lie, of course. Love, creativity, happiness, illness and death, beginnings and endings, joy and suffering — these are the big things in life; these are the forces that are beyond any of us and yet still a part of each of us, woven into our souls. In 2018, like all the years before, I’ll keep coming back to them.

[1] Credit especially to Jamie Ridler at Jamie Ridler Studios.

Influences

Originally published October 1, 2013, at Creative Dream Journals.

I have a thing for singer-songwriters, and lately I’ve rediscovered my love of crayons (which as a kid, I used to call “crowns”). The other day, these two loves came together when Dan Wilson, who’s an artist as well as a songwriter, posted a drawing he made of the names of artists who have influenced him.

Inspired, I got out my crayons and made this list of my creative influences.

Here they are in categories:

Musicians and Artists: Storyhill, The Beatles, The Monkees, David Bowie, Johnny Depp, Claude Monet, Wolf Kahn, and Stuart Davis

Novelists: Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, J.K. Rowling, Ursula LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle, Ellen Raskin, Lloyd Alexander

Memoirists: Liz Gilbert, Frances Mayes, Dave Barry

Coaches who write: Tama Kieves, Martha Beck, Jamie Ridler

Scholars: Wade Clark Roof, Joseph Campbell, Stephen Prothero, Huston Smith, Paul Ricoeur, Emile Durkheim, Victor Turner, Robert Bellah

I could go on with friends, family, teachers, and organizations that influenced me, but this is the list of people I was drawn to specifically because of their creative work or their creative way of being in the world. But I couldn’t resist also including some places that have been important to my creative life:

Places: Nepal, Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake Park, and Austin, Texas

Who are the influences that you’ve chosen?

Cool

Originally published August 12, 2013, at Creative Dream Journals.

I have a thing for “cool people,” and I have a specific image of what “cool people” are like. They’re bohemian and iconoclastic. They challenge our ideas of what’s normal and beautiful and good. They read Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg and D. H. Lawrence, Dostoevsky and Eastern-bloc writers I’ve never heard of, and if they’re exceptionally cool, Zora Neale Hurston and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They like Picasso and surrealism and dark things. They’re edgy. They’re avante garde, artistic, brilliant, and discerning. They like Lennon more than McCartney, but they like early, little-known blues musicians even more than that. Their humor is filled with unexpected observations, unique word choices, and original twists of phrase.

I’m drawn to these people, but they also intimidate me—because, of course, I’m not that cool. An adolescent at heart, I periodically think, “I should be more like them. I should read edgy literature and see art films and try to make my mark and be an explorer of the outside and a pusher of boundaries.” Instead, I read Jane Austen and Harry Potter. I seek out stories of good triumphing over evil and love conquering all. And I gravitate to the bright, happy, sparkling play of colors that Claude Monet saw in hay bales and bowls of grapes. Once, I was given a literal pair of rose-colored glasses: I loved them.

Cool people sing with honest understanding of the tragedy and physicality of the human condition; I write with hopeful idealism of the interconnections between people and the unity of the universe. They explore the aesthetics of decay and the things you can see in the dark; I seek out the sun and the spring green of new leaves. Cool people are edgy and challenging; I am reassuring and hopeful.

But here’s the truth: What the cool people I’m thinking of really have in common—what’s at root, beneath their arcane tastes—is a commitment to authenticity, truth, and honesty. They are themselves rather than some societal version of normal and good. They see people honestly rather than idealistically or cynically. At their best, they identify with and embrace the real—even the real that is dark, negative, and decaying; even human imperfection; even the tragic.

What really makes cool people cool is not their taste in art, literature, film, or music, or even their attraction to themes of darkness, weakness, and tragedy. What really makes them cool is deeper than that: their commitment to truth and authenticity in themselves and to empathetic and raw honesty in their perceptions of others.

And that’s what I take in. That’s what I try to imitate. What’s cool is being who you really are, even if part of who you are borders on someone else’s idea of schmaltzy, naive, or pedestrian. None of those one-sided judgments matter. What matters is expressing your truth, your reality, your unique mind, self, perceptions, and feelings, and bringing that out into the great mix of ingredients that makes up the shifting soup of creative expression.

Grazing for Introverts

Originally published July 8, 2013, at Creative Dream Journals.

Have I mentioned that I have a book coming out this fall? Oh, I have? (Insert winking smiley face here.)

Many years ago, when that book was just beginning to come to life, I went through a long period in which I didn’t really know what it was about. I couldn’t put it into words—and yet, it had me. I knew it was a thing, a nonverbal something—I just didn’t have the words for it yet.

I think a lot of ideas start out nonverbal like that—as a sense of something or a feeling or an intuition that hasn’t quite made its way into the verbal realm of thought. But for a writer, that can be kind of a drag, because this thing is going to have to find words somehow, and you’re not sure how to help them come along.

I began by immersing myself in others’ words—I read and read and then thought and thought and tried to make this thing articulate. Friends said “Is it this?” And I’d say “It’s like that, but it’s not exactly that.”

I wrote notes and notes and two- and three- and five-page summaries of my idea. None of them actually communicated much.

But I knew that the thing was there, that there was a book on this thing waiting to be written, and that somehow I was going to have to find a way of pulling it out of me.

After about a year of this searching for words, I was pretty frustrated. I was in grad school, and my adviser, Paul—bless him and his faith in me—did not act equally frustrated. Instead, he said, “Go out and graze.” Go out and look around. Get out of your own head, get out of books. Go out into the world, and see what you find that resonates with this idea of yours.

And that’s what got me unstuck. I looked around, made scrapbooks of what I found, and went and looked and listened some more to the creative things that other people were up to that seemed to speak to this thing that I had going on.

And then the words came.

Now that I think about it, this is probably good advice for an introvert. Maybe introverts and extraverts can weigh in: I wonder whether introverts like me are more likely to get stuck in our own heads, our own inner processing, and can get unstuck by remembering to get out there and engage with the outside world. And maybe extraverts can get stuck in what’s already happening out there and get unstuck by remembering to “go in” and see what their own unique minds make of all that they’ve seen and done.

Calendars, Lists, and Office Supplies (oh my!)

Originally published April 18, 2013, at Creative Dream Journals.

Last month, I wrote about how with a creative life, you lack the provided structure and schedule that are a part of most jobs; instead, you make up your life as you go along. At the same time, you do have priorities, and you want to make sure to really prioritize them and not just drift, letting circumstances and others’ wishes take the place of bosses and job descriptions.

In my effort to give method to this madness, I find myself in a creative relationship with calendars and to-do lists. (Do they love me as much as I love them? I wonder.) I find that every few months, I feel an urge to take a step back and reflect on what my priorities have been, and more than that, what I want them to be as I move forward into the next phase. I journal about what I want or need to give time and attention to. I’m one of those people whose inner life is as organized as my outer life is disorganized, so I end up sorting through all the values and priorities that I journal about and putting them into categories. Which I color-code. And then transfer to two different calendars and multiple to-do lists, using cute bullet points and fonts that don’t make me feel trapped. (You have to do this kind of thing with time-management devices; otherwise, they think they’re in charge.)

For example, a couple of years ago, I was really struggling with the balance between my creative work—my first book—and my freelancing work, which is the work that brings in money. If I drifted too far to one side, I was all happy, except for every time I swiped my credit card to pay for basic needs that I couldn’t afford. Over too far on the other side, I was bringing in money but feeling alienated from myself and like I was watching my life recede. And like most people, I also had other priorities—family; groceries, laundry, car maintenance, paperwork, and all the ordinary chores of keeping a household going; time that I wanted to spend with friends or just at leisure, having fun; my long-postponed quest for a good man (I hear they’re hard to find); things I needed to do for my health, such as exercise and spending time in the sun (I get seasonal depression, and the sun is my very best friend in the whole world and my favorite antidepressant. Does it love me as much as I love it? I think I will judge this by whether or not I eventually get skin cancer).

It seems obvious in retrospect, but it was a big deal to figure out how to use the calendar to balance these things. I marked designated days to work on my book, and I stuck to them no matter how worried I was about money. I started with one day a week, and then that didn’t feel like enough, so I settled on two. And I had designated days for clients, and scheduled time for chores and leisure. I marked them off on my calendar in their different colors, but I also moved them around when I wanted to. Just having them there helped me make sure that I was attending in a regular way to my two big priorities of writing a book and earning a living, as well the other things that mattered.

Recently, I finished the book. (I finished the book!) Well, for the most part. The manuscript is now with my publisher’s production team, and I will have work to do—writing the index, reviewing copyedits and page proofs, and a variety of marketing-and-promotion tasks—but it feels like a whole new phase of things, Whole and New, and I found myself with that familiar urge to step back and reflect on What Next. More and more, I felt that this division that I had constructed in my work life between money work and creative work, as much as it had helped for the past two years, wasn’t the way to move forward. The categories are blending. My creative work now includes marketing and promotion, and I want my paid work to gradually move in a more creative direction. Meanwhile, the long-postponed Quest for Love needs to finally get prioritized, and so does a certain kind of self-nourishment that I’ve sidelined while I’ve been working two jobs.

So I have a new calendar, and a new to-do list, with new colors and fonts and fun bullet points. (Okay, really I have two calendars and two lists, one broader and one more detailed version of each. Have I mentioned that I also enjoy pretty office supplies?) Despite its multitude, this new organizational system is simpler, because it has only four categories: Work, Man, Self, Chores. And the simplicity helps me organize in my mind the myriad of activities included in each category, especially work: the production of my book, promoting it and myself as a writer, looking for more creative paid-work opportunities, working with current and prospective clients, updating my freelancing website, and gestating book #2, which will be about exactly this kind of thing: How do writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types balance their creative work with earning a living? I know from my own life and from listening to others, especially musicians, that it’s not something that you just figure out once and stick with forever. Circumstances change, other life priorities emerge and fall away, and the musician who’s writing songs and touring full-time this year might have been working in a factory, teaching guitar, and performing on weekends last year; might be recording and producing next year; and might be writing commercial music for hire and touring occasionally the year after that.

And so it is with creative living. Organizing a creative life is creative exercise in itself.

(And aren’t these cute?)

Nine Ways of Thinking about Love and Creativity

Originally published February 19, 2013, at Creative Dream Journals.

1. Falling in love with a creative project. I fall in love with all my creative projects. I’m not one of these people who looks at my work and never thinks it’s good enough. That’s not because I think my work is so great—it’s because I don’t have an evaluative relationship to my own work. To me, creating anything—a book, a painting, a song—is like having a child. When people have children, they don’t look at them and think, “Is this baby good enough? How well does she match my idea of a perfect child?” At least, I hope they don’t. I think people just love their children because they’re theirs, and because babies are good. Falling in love with a creative project is like that—you’re infatuated with this idea because it’s just so cool, or delighted by this painting because it used to be a blank canvas and now it’s got your colors on it, and you love it because creative projects are just good in and of themselves.

2. Loving support. Books’ acknowledgments sections are filled with gratitude for “the one who always believed in me” and “the ones who supported me in down times and celebrated my triumphs.” Some of your greatest supporters might not care about your project at all if it weren’t yours. But in an extension of number 1, they care about your project because they care about you.

3. Supportive love. Some people don’t love you—don’t even know you—but love your project. They really want to see a book about that or a novel that tells this kind of story or a song whose harmonies carry them to their own soul. These people are your audience, but they’re also your early supporters. They will do what they can to forward your project, to help it along, to help it reach other interested people. They’ll recommend it to others, they’ll tell you they can’t wait to read it, and they’ll tell you what it means to them.

4. Miracle people. People who are both 2 and 3—people who love both you and the work that you’re creating—these people are miracles. A true adviser who cares about you and believes in the work you’re creating; a best friend who’s fascinated by the things you’re writing about; a lover who can’t believe how beautiful your music is.

5. Love as a creative project. When we think of creativity, we often think of the arts. More and more people are also approaching careers as creative projects, and life in general as a creative project. Loving relationships, too, are an act of creativity—an ongoing creative project for both people or everyone involved. That’s the trick about relationships, too. I can sit down and say, “Today, I will write a blog post or begin a painting or take some photographs.” But I can’t sit down and say “Today I will create a loving relationship.” Relationships are cooperative creativity, collaborative creativity, maybe more like making a movie or a play. You have to find someone who wants to create the relationship with you, and you have to want to create it with them.

6. Creative projects as a form of love. Any creation is a gift from you to the world. The book I’ve written, the blog posts I write, the book I’m planning—I start them for me, because I’m driven to, but in the end, they’re always wanting to help people—wanting to share what I’ve found with people who might wonder about the same kinds of things that I wonder about. The song that you write because it’s yours, because it came to you, and that you then hone because you want to hear out loud what you hear in your head—that song brings me life. Your artwork that you make to enrich your days fills my days with beauty.

7. Creative loving. As our loved ones change and go through life, we find new ways of loving them. Sometimes, we might love by listening; other times, by giving practical help. We love by playing, engaging, paying attention, teaching, learning, giving and asking for advice, explaining, offering and asking for help, thinking of fun things to do, sympathizing, touching, smiling, reassuring, challenging, keeping company, leaving alone, asking questions, sharing our worlds, and remaining silent. The creativity comes in learning new ways to love, in figuring out what loved ones want and need, and in discovering your own ways of responding.

8. Self-love. To be your best creative self, you have to respect your own nature and treat yourself with love. What do you need? What do you want? Down time, fun, beauty, adventure, softness, healthy food, unhealthy food, exercise, solitude, companionship, sunshine—whatever it is, give yourself that. And sometimes, creating itself is an act of self-love: I’m looking for a book about this topic, but I can’t find it—I’ll write it myself. I have a song in my head; by bringing it into the world, I feel like myself. I have a poem inside me; by writing it, I heal.

9. Falling in love sparks creativity; creativity makes you fall in love. I fell in love with the way light played on the water, so I painted it. I loved the texture of her skin, so I drew it. And—in drawing you, writing about him, photographing that flower, I saw your beauty and complexity, and his, and the flower’s—I fell in love with what I was looking at. And in seeing that beauty, I saw more beauty everywhere, and I fell in love with life.

Now Let’s Begin…

Originally published January 11, 2013, at Creative Dream Journals.

I love beginnings—the clean slate of a new year, falling in love with a new creative project, the openness of babies and puppies, the pale green of spring.

I love that these days, new years really feel new. I spent most of my life in academia, where the new year really begins in August, so now I love being on the same calendar as the calendar, and I love the down time that I now have in the space between Christmas and the new year.

In recent years, I’ve taken this down time to reflect on the ending year and to set intentions for the new one. A couple of yearly rituals nurture this time of recentering.

Every December, Jamie Ridler sends her newsletter subscribers a set of questions for celebration and casting forward—questions like “What were you loving this year?” “What will you be glad to leave behind?” and “What do you want to invite into your life next year?” I copy these questions into my journal and write my answers to them as I fly to visit my family for Christmas, or on the flight home.

After Christmas, for the past couple of years, I’ve also had a little ceremony with my friends. It’s different every year. The first year, it focused on me and the challenge of combining creative work with income-generating work. I gathered music, quotations from books, and objects that spoke to this theme. My friends brought over their own supportive things—the funniest may have been the candle that says “Pagame Pronto” (“Pay Me Fast!”). We listened to the music, read the quotes aloud, and incorporated the objects. Then we made cookies.

The following year, I invited them to bring their own theme ideas—their intentions and wishes for themselves. One of them thought of a project for us: we cut images and words out of magazines and glued them to votive candle holders, so that all year, we could light a candle for each of our themes. Then we made rice-krispie treats.

I don’t know what we’ll do this year. I think we might create something low-key. It feels like that kind of year. And that’s the beauty of do-it-yourself rituals—they give us a structure and purpose that’s the same every time, and we also get to make them new every time. So every year, these rituals carry the same meaning: they reaffirm personal reflection, intention, community—and sweet desserts! And at the same time, they offer fresh meaning every year, depending on what emerges from the creative process of reflecting, intending, and living. And baking.

As your 2013 begins, I wish you a fresh start, a supportive community, creative joy, centeredness, true intention—and many yummy desserts.

Choosing Safety

Originally published October 24, 2012, at Creative Dream Journals.

This week, I went for safety.

I’ve been a freelance editor and writer for three years. I like it, and it’s going well, and it suits me in so many ways, including that I get to use some of my best strengths, work from home, and set my own schedule. But financially, freelancing feels unsafe. You never know, from month to month, where the money will come from, what the work will be, and how much you’ll earn. Some months, your income may be zero. I feel more confident the longer it goes well—the more months and years I can look back and say, “OK, I did all right. I brought in enough.” But then I look forward on my calendar into next month or next week or next year, and I don’t see where the money will come from—of course. It’s the nature of the job.

So last month, when a client called and asked me to apply for a part-time, salaried position that would allow me to work form home on my own hours, I thought, “Safety!” I could do this job—I knew I had the skills. What’s more, I believed in the mission of the organization and had occasionally contributed to it informally. It seemed like the closest I could get to freelancing in a salaried position. I imagined how my life would change if I could predict this month’s income, and next month’s, and the month after that. My shoulders relaxed just thinking about it. My mind became easy. I knew that this was kismet—after all, I had gotten the phone call telling me about the job only two days after completing a book manuscript I’d been working on forever, and one day after sitting in a coffee shop and making a long list of my “post-manuscript life priorities.” It was a big deal. The timing was amazing.

So I wrote up a resume and cover letter, ran them by my friends, applied for the job, and did some preparatory work. And then, on the appointed day, I picked up the phone to interview for the position.

An hour and a half later, I hung up the phone and said aloud, “Holy cow.” I texted my friend Colleen: “Holy cow. Interview over. Not sure I want the job any more.” I e-mailed my other friend Colleen: “Holy cow, I’d love to process that job interview with you. Long and short of it: Not sure I want the job any more.” (As an aside, if you ever want to know anything about me, apparently all you have to do is Google “holy cow” and “my friend Colleen.”)

This post is getting long, so I’ll cut to the chase. The interview gave me the sense that the job would be unsafe for me. Not physically unsafe, of course. And not financially unsafe, either—no, that lure was still there. The job felt unsafe creatively. A part-time job, it felt like it would require my full-time focus. It felt like the kind of job that never leaves your mind—the kind that’s always with you, that demands all your resources of energy and attention to execute someone else’s predetermined agenda.

And that kind of job doesn’t support a creative life.

I’ve made a commitment to my creative life—to writing, and to living in a way that nourishes my writing. My freelancing business supports this commitment, not only financially, but also energetically. It suits me. It dovetails.

So I withdrew my application for the job. With all its financial risk, I chose freelancing. I chose creativity. I chose safety.