Tag Archives: writing

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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Life In Suspension

This week I’m contemplating The Hanged Man, a Major Arcana card in the Tarot deck. The traditional meaning of the card is “life in suspension.” Not coincidentally, The Hanged Man is the title of my first book.

The Hanged Man

The Tarot illustrates archetypes, and archetypes, like stories, have many rich facets and shades. The meaning of such symbols is never cut and dried, and archetypes can always be understood in layers and intuitive connections.

For many years I’ve worked with Tarot cards every six weeks, and at least half the time I pull The Hanged Man out of a deck of 78 cards, thoroughly shuffled and cut, for a 10-card spread. It’s obvious this particular card carries an important message for me.

Life in suspension. What does that mean?

First, I have to decide what “life” means.

Life: Doing, having, being.

For 50 years, I believed I had to make up for the fact of my being by doing and having. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to support and appreciate my need and desire to just be. Gradually, I’m changing my focus and attention from having and doing to being.

Thinking or talking about just being–feeling, playing, expressing, being in my body, following my interests and desires–seems either ridiculously shallow or criminal, I’m not sure which. Maybe both together.

On the other hand, having and doing can certainly be shallow in the long run, and provide only a brief period of comfort and pleasure, at best.

Life in suspension. Being in suspension? As in I’m too busy doing and having to be?

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That doesn’t sound good.

In my world, doing doesn’t count unless the doing is perfectly done. As perfection is a goal I never achieve, spending most of my time and energy doing seems like a bad investment.

As I explore and adopt minimalism, having is less and less important.

That brings us back to being.

Life in suspension describes those times during which we feel stuck. We might be in a job that doesn’t challenge us, a relationship that’s not healthy, or an addiction. We might feel trapped in indecision, fear, grief or financial struggles. We can spend years, decades, lifetimes with pieces of our lives in suspension while we wrestle with our demons.

The entirety of our lives is generally not in suspension at the same time. We might be very pleased to have healed a health problem, yet still have struggles with money. We might be happy at work but stuck in our personal relationships, or vice versa. We might function for years with a hidden addiction, or wrestle chronically with our weight.

The thing about being stuck is that it doesn’t feel competent, attractive, effective or like success.

It feels like failure.

On the heels of failure are the hounds of guilt, shame and isolation.

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But during those messy periods when our lives are in suspension and our feelings painful, what sort of invisible, underground growth and change is happening? What is hidden in that suspended interval that is regenerative, creative and fertile?

The Hanged Man wears an enigmatic smile in many Tarot decks. He’s hanging from one leg from the branch of a tree. Why does he smile? Why isn’t he thrashing and cursing, trying to get loose? Why is he peaceful? How did he get there, and how long must he hang? What will happen to him after he’s unfettered? Who hung him there in the first place, and why?

Life in suspension sounds like nothing is happening. Everything has stopped. Yet one of the things we can say about life with complete confidence is that it’s always changing.

I realize now my book, The Hanged Man, is at heart an examination of lives in suspension, or at least partly so. What happens to a mother who has murdered her children? That’s a life not so much in suspension as shattered, but what of her grief, her shame and her pain? How does one continue after such an event? What happens to a man who flees his home, his parents and his young wife, and is not able to stop running? What happens after we die? What’s happening while we’re waiting for spring, or for the baby to be born, or for a death?

Times of despair, illness, injury, grief, exile and failure can make us feel that we are stuck. We can’t seem to fix, change or get away from the tree in which we’re hanging upside down. Nothing seems to be happening and our discomfort goes on and on. Others fear us, or are repelled or uncomfortable because of our trouble. Failure of any sort is contagious. Nobody wants to be infected.

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Yet suspended intervals are common to us all. We might pretend they’re not happening and hide them from others, but who hasn’t been through a time of failure, either one catastrophic event or many smaller ones? Who hasn’t spent time mired in grief, rage, addiction or indecision? Who hasn’t lost themselves in confusion or been paralyzed by fear?

That’s why The Hanged Man is such a powerful archetype.

The suspended interval doesn’t seem like rich ground for stories at first glance, but I’ve always been more attracted to the less popular and less prized side of life. I like the blood, the sweat and the wet spot. I like the harsh realities of bone and ash.

Years ago I started creatively exploring lives in suspension without ever thinking about it in those terms. It was a careless kind of play, inspired by my storytelling material. What happened to the characters from the beautiful old traditional tales I was telling after—or even before—the story I knew? When Rapunzel escaped the tower, where did she go? What did she do? What became of the prince the little mermaid loved?

Why is that rascally hanged man smiling?

In the suspended interval, decades long, of hiding my writing because I felt it was a shameful, unproductive waste of time and it earned no money, I accidentally started writing a book. Or, I should say, a series of books.

It didn’t seem like much was happening while I was living those years, though. I was just hanging on, living my life.

Now that life I was experiencing while nothing much was happening has become nearly two thousand pages of creative work.

Exploring life in suspension. 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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