Category Archives: Authenticity

Responsibility

One of my favorite things about life is that changing one subtle thread in the pattern of our behavior and identity can change the whole picture in unexpected but beautiful ways. The overculture promises this if we buy the right product, but that’s a hollow promise. If we really want change, we have to work internally, which is messy, confusing work, often filled with anguish—much less sexy and fun than buying a new pair of shoes or trying a different hair color.

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As I navigate through the process of submitting my first book manuscript to agents and publishers, the necessity to write a strong and appropriate query letter, synopsis, autobiography and pitch has forced me to come further out of hiding than I ever have before.

While sitting on the lifeguard stand at work last week, it occurred to me that one word sums up the change spurred by my creative ambitions and rippling into all areas of my life.

Responsibility.

This is an amusing twist of irony because I have always been overly responsible about everyone and everything other than myself. I’ve believed myself responsible for the health and happiness of every person and animal around me since I was a child. When things become challenging or unpleasant, I’ve blamed myself. When accidents and misunderstandings occur, I’ve blamed myself. When others make self-destructive or boneheaded choices, I’ve blamed myself.

It goes without saying that I’ve certainly blamed myself for all my own real and imagined flaws, weaknesses, mistakes, blue eyes, wide hips, wild hair, cellulite and countless other things.

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Futility doesn’t begin to describe the kind of life this behavior creates.

The literary submission process was not the only catalyst prompting me to reverse my old pattern of taking on responsibility that doesn’t belong to me and ignoring that which does, but it’s certainly a big one.

I’ve been so uncomfortable with trying to present my creative work in a professional, objective, supportive, respectful manner that I haven’t had the time or attention to sit back and view the last two or three weeks with any kind of objectivity, but that particular hour of lifeguarding gave me the pause I needed to see the changing pattern of several different areas in my life.

In my primary relationship I’m gradually becoming more authentic and less concerned about taking responsibility for the needs, wants and preferences of my partner. He’s a grown man, intelligent and able to speak for and take care of himself. He’s also able to adapt, adjust and take his lumps like everyone else. It’s not my job in life to see to it that he (or anyone else) is never uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable all the time, and I manage to live through it.

Letting go of what I was never responsible for in the first place is an enormous relief, but the truth is I’ve always preferred caring for others to caring for myself. It’s not that I don’t know who I am and what I want. I’m not a bit confused about that. Since I came to Maine, I’ve learned to know and love myself.

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What keeps me caring for others rather than myself is the belief that I’m the only person who can love me. Choosing to be more open and real about my own needs, wants and preferences, even though they might conflict (and often do) with those around me, seems like a life-and-death risk. Even sitting here writing about It gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want to be responsible for myself in this way.

I have a warm, gregarious, big-hearted friend who frequently invites me on activities and play dates of all kinds. At least half the time I say no. I cringe when I say it. I worry. I brace myself for the end of our friendship every time. But no is the honest answer—the real me. I’m a hermit. I like nothing so much as a quiet day or evening at home. My few social needs are well met, and I have no desire to be out and about in the world more than I already am. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty …

See? There it is again. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty, as do I, and that means I must take responsibility for my truths: knowing them, speaking them, and accepting that others will inevitably be affected by them.

I don’t want the responsibility of making anyone uncomfortable or unhappy. Ever. Under any circumstances. (Well, unless I’m really pissed off, like when the fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy at the pool announced during an exercise class that people with tattoos don’t have jobs and he wouldn’t have any such person in his house. Note: I have a tattoo on my left shoulder that’s quite obvious in my bathing suit, which is my work attire (you know, for my job), and I was present at the time. Also, two of my colleagues have tattoos, clearly visible in their bathing suits, not to mention many of our patrons. Fortunately, I’m able to be professional and keep my obnoxious opinions to myself in public.)

One of the greatest gifts of my current relationships is how often I’m forced to be authentic and speak my truth, trusting that those I interact with are adults who can deal with their feelings about my choices (I’m talking to you, fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy), just as I deal with my feelings about theirs. If others are not adults and refuse to take responsibility for their own feelings, well that’s not really about me at all, and those are not the kind of relationships I’m available for.

Suddenly, everywhere I look, I’m watching myself openly say yes or no, ask for what I want and/or need, state my feelings and preferences without apology or justification, and present my creative work with pride, love and belief in its value.

When I reread this, I smile. It sounds so smooth! It’s not, though. I feel a lot of anxiety as I come out from under cover. Challenging these old patterns gives me a greasy feeling of imminent doom. How can I expect anyone to love or even tolerate me if I insist on being a real person with needs and preferences? How can I admit openly what I think, feel, need and create?

No, it’s not smooth. It’s terrifying and exhausting.

It’s also exhilarating and freeing. Life is a lot easier when I give up taking care of anyone but myself. One of the great gifts of aging has been my gradual journey from a people-pleasing shell to sensual creativity, warty wisdom and vigorous connection to my own power and intuition.

Responsibility for myself. My daily crime.

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Why Am I the One?

This week I’ve spent hours working on finalizing a query letter for publishers and literary agents, as well as shaping a 1-2-page synopsis of my first manuscript.

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I approached this task in my usual methodical way. I researched writing queries and synopses.

As so often happens, I found lots of advice, much of it conflicting.

I took notes, bookmarked sites and started rough drafts. My research mode doesn’t usually last more than an hour or two. At the point when much of what I’m finding is repetitive and I feel more bored than interested I know it’s time to switch to writing, no matter how tentatively or sloppily. One can’t begin editing and refining unless there are words on the page.

Out of all the templates, formulas, critiques and examples of “successful” queries and synopses, one shining question stood out, and I didn’t find it on a search. I found it on a literary agency website. “Tell us why you were the one who had to write this book.”

Why am I the one who had to write this book?

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I’ve been carrying this question around with me all week, as I lifeguard and teach swimming lessons, as I spend hours working on my laptop, as I sit in the barn and sort through boxes of things from my old life.

I realize that this question is the opposite of my usual frame, no matter what I’m doing. My conviction of my own inadequacy and that others will invariably be disappointed in me means that I’m focused on all the reasons why I’m not qualified to write a book—or do almost anything else. What makes the submission task so daunting is coming up with a realistic, concise, clear evaluation and presentation of my creative work—and I’m extremely resistant to trying.

Yet the hardest work of the query has actually been going on for months, or even years, as I wrote, edited, rewrote, re-edited, and nurtured a tentative, almost shameful feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and amazement that I actually wrote a book—a long one!

Thinking about why I had to be the one to write The Hanged Man turns me away from all the things I’m not and asks me for what I am.

I have little confidence in anyone else finding my work valuable, but the fact is I find it—and myself—valuable, so I can write about that. I can speak for myself and my vision. I cringe when I’m asked to write a short biography, but I can write about why I’m the one who had to write this book.

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As I began to answer that question, writing the query suddenly got easier. I was able to evaluate my creation more clearly, and find a comfortable balance between overconfidence and no confidence at all. I stopped worrying that I’ve never been published before, I’ve won no contests or awards, and I’ve received no formal or traditional higher education for writing, and started thinking about all the reasons why I, and only I, had to write this particular piece of work.

It made a nice change.

Obviously, I want to get published, but I wonder if the submission process itself is not the biggest payoff for me, regardless of the outcome. The necessity to stand up, speak up, support and believe in myself in order to be the writer I am is driving me to push myself in ways that nothing else could, because nothing else is as important to me. It would be much easier to coast along with my old paradigm: I’m no good, and neither is anything I think, say, make or do. It’s my familiar story, and I feel anxious when I think about rewriting it.

I notice this tension between believing in myself and having no confidence in myself at work, too. I watch a colleague teach a water exercise class and admire the way he structures the class and his manner with the class participants. I think about the next time I’ll be teaching that class, and how I’m so much less than my coworker. I prepare and worry, knowing I won’t measure up, knowing the class would rather have another teacher, knowing I won’t do it right.

Then I get into the water, stop thinking and anticipating, assess the participants and their physical and social needs, and off we go. I have a good time. I feel calm and competent. I stop fearing that I’m not good enough and give it my best. By the time the class is over, I wonder what all my fuss was about.

Why am I the one who had to write this book? Why am I the one who has to teach a class on any given day?

Maybe simply because I’m the one who did write it, and teach it. Maybe I was engaging with those activities because I was the best one for that particular job.

“Why can’t you be like …?”

Others have asked me that question, but not as often as I’ve asked it of myself.

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I can’t be like all the other wonderful, competent, gifted, beautiful people in the world because I’m not them, that’s why. I can’t follow their paths. Their definition of success may not be the same as mine. I can’t look like them, teach like them, write like them or make choices the way they do.

The piece I never think about is that they can’t be like me, either. Because they’re not me.

We can learn from each other. We can support each other. We can tear each other down. At the end of the day, though, we can only be ourselves. Everyone else is taken.

I have a query letter I feel good about now. I followed traditional conventions and standards for such a letter—to a point. But I also let my own voice and style shine through. No one but me could have written the query or the manuscript accompanying it.  The day I finished the query I submitted to my first agent. The next agent I want to approach requires a synopsis and a query letter.

Sigh. Back to the drawing board. This time for a synopsis only I can write.

For the most part, I love living the life I have. I don’t find myself or my writing either inadequate or disappointing. Maybe an agent and publisher out there will agree with me.

I’ll never know if I don’t try.

And I’ll find my own path through the query and submission process, a path only I can make.

My daily crime.

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Spinning My Wheels

Sometimes I spin my wheels.

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I map out a week, a day, a list of directions with mileage and time apportioned to each part of the journey. I ascend the stairs to my expectant workspace, turn on a lamp, plug in a single string of red Christmas lights, light a candle and lift the laptop lid. Outside my windows, tiny snowflakes fill the air. The old-timers here say, “Little snow, big snow,” meaning small flakes indicate significant accumulation. I don’t know if this is always true, but I notice the size of the flakes. As I check the weather forecast, my e-mail and the headlines, my gaze is drawn repeatedly to the window. The hypnotic falling snow is the same color as the sky. Disordered ranks of brown cattail stalks stand ankle-deep in the sleeping pond. An infinity of branch, needle and twig is adorned with an even greater infinity of frozen white crystals, falling soundlessly and blurring the colors of stone and wood.

No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place — Zen saying.

It is then that my wheels start to spin. I have set aside this morning to write. I stare at the laptop screen, fingers on the keyboard. Nothing happens. Seeking inspiration, demanding creativity, I make notes, review notes already made, catch up on reading from favorite blogs and my current stack of books. I search for some solid traction so I can move through the day according to my tidy, efficient plan, but I find myself returning to the window, spellbound, empty of creativity or inspiration but full of wonder at the subtle beauty of the winter snow.

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It’s the contrast that catches my attention. My aerie is filled with books, beloved objects, the tools of my life. The warm sticky scent of a red candle fills my space. The red desk lamp I bought at Goodwill more than 10 years ago lights my worktop. My comfortable chair and footstool beckon me to sit and read. The room is warmed by the chimney that rises up through it from the wood stove below. I hear my partner talking to our old cat in his office below me; not the words, but the loving sound of his voice that is reserved just for her. He is at his work and I am at mine, cocooned in our private spaces in our slouching farmhouse with lights and heat and the rinsed breakfast dishes stacked on the counter waiting for hot water and soap. We have things to do today, errands to run, people to talk to. We have plans and intentions.

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But outside, just beyond the single pane of glass in the old attic windows, is a monochrome world, delicate and cold, still and peaceful. The snow falls without effort. Each flake finds a resting place on the bodies of the trees or the water or the earth. The wood and stone have no place to go and nothing to do. They dwell in the vast power of simply being. The snow settles lightly.

I think about living minimally, weeding out my clothes, the week ahead, money, the perfect Christmas gift I can never find for a loved one, and whether or not we’ll make it into town to do the errands today. I think about drafting a query letter to send out with my first manuscript, which I just finished editing for the fifth or sixth time. I think about reviewing the water rescue information I’ll need next weekend when I travel with a couple of colleagues from work to get deep-water lifeguard certified. It will be a busy week. My careful plan blocks out this morning for coming up with this week’s blog post. I will write … I will begin now … My idea is … Ready, set, go!

My wheels spin, and I look out the window at my little black car, which is wearing a white blanket, and recognize the sinking feeling of no traction. No amount of urgency or frustration makes snow, slush and mud into solid ground. No amount of bullying makes my creativity compliant. I get up. I sit down. I glance at my journal, reread a paragraph in a book, look at some poetry. I feel restless and resentful at my own recalcitrance.

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Outside, the snow falls, serene and inexorable as the fading light here in the last handful of days before winter solstice. I open the window and lean close against the hushed, frigid world outside it. My little candle, my lists, my inconsequential blog and my plan for this morning make no impression outside the window screen. It’s time for sleep and dreaming, time for rest. The forest knows, the earth and water know. They lie peacefully under the low sun and the long nights.

My wheels spin, making a noisy mess, throwing clods of half-formed ideas, provocative questions, lingering music of beautiful words, comments and conversations and observations, going nowhere. No traction. The morning is passing. I have not accomplished what I wanted to. I’ve neither rested with the winter snow nor produced a post. I’m torn between self-disgust, resignation and amusement. I think about heavy, cold chains; red, numb hands; wet jeans and sodden gloves; the steady clicking of hazard lights; the feeling of being late and time running out; the texture of wood ash, cat litter, sand and salt thrown onto snow and ice; and the futile laboring of spinning wheels.

The morning is gone. In half an hour we’ll try to go into town. My partner is out with the snow shovel. I shut the window, sit down and open the laptop. I type “Spinning My Wheels” and begin to write this post.

My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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