Tag Archives: authenticity

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.

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.

Following Your Own Inner Wisdom is Freakin’ Crucial

Originally published May 22, 2012, at Creative Dream Journals.

I can point to so many people I’ve learned life lessons from. I’ve talked about some of them in other posts on this blog, and some are other contributors. But for me, the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to follow my inner wisdom. It’s a cliché, but it’s truth, and that’s the way to say it.

The best teachers I’ve had are people who have helped me do this. They modeled integrity themselves; or they actively listened to me and asked questions to help me figure out what I want, think, and feel; or they reacted positively when I followed my own path, spoke my mind, wrote what I wanted to write, and was true to myself.

Following my inner knower is a muscle I have to keep exercising, because it’s rarely convenient. She likes to go against the grain, and that makes her both endearing and frustrating, like a toddler, only one with years of experience, insight, conviction, and perspective. So, maybe not so much like a toddler. Maybe more like some other stereotype—a hippie, a bohemian, a ne’er-do-well, a self-absorbed artiste, a layabout. Because my inner knower almost always comes across as lazy, self-indulgent, and irresponsible, on the surface. But she’s not. She’s just serving a deeper purpose, one that has to do with developing the soul, growing as a human being, becoming more myself, and experiencing life richly.

Just in the past couple of weeks, my inner knower has had to deal with conversations like these:

  • My habits of mind say, “It’s Sunday. You should be productive today.” My inner knower says “No. You need to go to the park and cut pictures out of magazines.”
  • My tax bill says, “You should sacrifice some of your writing time so you can do more income-generating work.” My inner knower says, “You need to stay on the path you’re on. You can be creative about this.”
  • Some insidious voice says, “You need to sacrifice your own best interests to accommodate other people’s convenience.” My inner badass says “Are you kidding me?! Step aside while I pull out my Tommy gun.” (Wow, I didn’t know my inner spirit had a Tommy gun till I wrote that just now. I’m pretty pacifist, so I’m both horrified and impressed.)

The thing is, she’s right. I can tell because when I don’t do what she says, I get depressed, and life feels like a burden. When I do do what she says, the world seems open to me. I’m alive again.

In her great book Finding Your Own North Star, Martha Beck talks about the debilitating pain she gets when she doesn’t do what her inner knower tells her to do. She says “I certainly hope that you don’t have as antagonistic a relationship with your body as I used to have with mine. I hope you don’t develop shooting pains and embarrassing rashes every time you step off your true path. Most people don’t. For the majority of my clients, their physical reactions to life choices are much more subtle—sometimes barely noticeable. But they are most decidedly there.” I quote this for you because I’m in Martha’s fun club: when I don’t do what my inner knower tells me to do, my brain chemistry freaks out and does what it can to incapacitate me and generally make me miserable. Stick, carrot—whatever works, I suppose.

But they used canaries to test coal mines for a reason. Sensitive freaks like me and Martha Beck are just extreme versions of normal people. Jamie Ridler once called it “having a super-powerful inner compass.” But everyone has an inner compass, right? It’s just that for some people, their inner compass points them toward things like “become an investment banker” or “marry a millionaire,” and so their struggles are different. But all of us are better off when we can find a way to go in the directions that our inner compass points. When we do, we’re more alive. We’re more ourselves. We’re absolutely more creative. We make possibilities that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

So your teachers rock. Mine do, anyway. But the best thing for you about your teachers is that they point you toward your own inner wisdom. They resonate with something amazing in you. They help you hear, they help you follow. You say “yes.” You don’t know what will happen. But you know you’re living your real life.

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.

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.