On Being a Writer

I always harbored romantic notions of what life as a writer would look like:

I thought I’d live in a cabin in the mountains. I’d leisurely make coffee each morning, warming my hands on the mug, preparing for another day of brilliance. I’d walk my Irish Setter, Maggie, unleashed along the sun dappled mountain trails, wearing a sweater (both me and Maggie), still holding that cup of coffee. Then I’d settle down at my desk overlooking the forest and a small creek, and begin to write. I never envisioned a computer, so God only knows what I was writing on. A typewriter, maybe? Which would work. Because writers never make mistakes and they never have to revise. Not really. Just an added comma here and there. Brilliance would emanate from my very being. And my sage wisdom about life, my tremendous insight into the inner working of the universe, would flow into my characters with ease. People would clammer to buy my latest work. I’d be revered and mysterious.

Here’s the reality of my life as a writer:

I get up at 5:30 a.m. not to write, but so I can grab a minute to myself for mindfulness & meditation–which is key to my being able to write later on. I do get to sip a leisurely cup of coffee as I bask in my morning quietude. That’s about the only similarity between the romanticized version of me and, well, ME.

I do have a dog. She’s a bouncing, drooling mess who I adore but who will never, ever go anywhere unleashed. And I can’t have a cup of coffee while I’m walking her, unless I intend to rejuvenate my skin with the wonders of caffeine. Because you know I’d be wearing that cup of coffee.

I write at my kitchen table, while telling the dog to stop barking at passersby and intermittently throwing a toy for her to keep her entertained. I have written a middle grades novel, which felt brilliant as I was writing it. But now it needs revision. As all writing does. And that doesn’t feel brilliant or romantic. It feels like work.

I write not serenely staring out at the lush mountainside but casting sidelong glances at the mountains of books that need to be cleaned, scanned, and sorted–inventory for the used bookstore that became part of the dream. Because every story matters. Mine. Yours. The ones in books and the ones yet to be told.

Writing involves practice. It’s the constant jotting down of thoughts and ideas. It’s grabbing a minute to write a blog post. It’s revising for the good of the story–because you believe it deserves to be told and is therefore worthy of your work, your effort.

Writing is messy. It’s not linear. But that makes it a lot more like me. I can relate to its ever evolving nature, its immediacy, its fits and starts. Nothing is more rewarding to me than immersing myself in stories.

But I’m going to be honest: my dog hates wearing sweaters.

Sometimes Life Happens in Odd Places

“God is either everything, or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t.”

I sat on an overstuffed couch that was a little too deep for my feet to comfortably reach the floor in a church basement illuminated by lamplight. I sipped my bubbly water and looked around at the small group assembled, feeling lucky to be there. Where else would I be talking about a God (of my own understanding) with a group of strangers on a Monday night?

I used to resent sitting in A.A. meetings. I wanted to be out in the world doing things. But I’ve come to realize that I am a better doer, dreamer, partner, parent when I get quiet enough to connect with my Higher Power. At the same time, it’s crucial for me to get out of my own head & into the world. Sitting in an A.A. meeting gives me a place to introspect… but also to share. It’s unique. And weird. And bizarrely perfect.

Other people’s stories hold tremendous sway for me. And A.A. is all about stories. They help us make sense of ourselves. They give us hope. They offer a blueprint for a way out of addiction and back into life.

A.A.ers form this quirky community united by one single purpose: to stay sober & help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. But that help looks different for every person. Sure, there are things about the program that are universal: the 12 steps & 12 traditions, being of service, sponsorship, anonymity. But what I find truly fascinating is that each member’s reflections on their own journey, the habits and perspectives they rely on to stay sober, and their interactions/beliefs/understanding of their Higher Power are what give people enough hope to get them to come back a second time. Because, let’s be real: the 12 Steps don’t work if you can’t get folks to stick around long enough to hear about them.

A.A. is a group of drunks who come together time after time after time to share their stories. A single meeting can span the entire spectrum of human emotion. And it’s okay. Nobody shies away from the hard, messy emotions in an A.A. meeting. Because honesty keeps folks sober. So folks listen unflinchingly to both the most horrific and the most tender parts of the human experience. Macabre humor abounds (Addiction is no fucking joke. But after you live at edge of death, in one form or another, laugher reminds you that you made it out). And they rally around the folks who are struggling.

In the world, you’re supposed to hide your pain, deal with it quietly, keep it to your damn self. But in an AA meeting, you bring your pain to the group. You expose it to the light, lay it out for everyone to see. And, in the sharing, you realize that you aren’t alone after all. That you never have to be alone again. That you never really were.

I spent my Monday night talking about God (the way I understand God–without anyone trying to dictate or co-opt that understanding) and sharing hope with folks gathered in a warm, cozy church basement lit by lamplight.

Not bad for a Monday.

Meeting My Appropriate Edge

I can force things. Or I can chill the hell out, listen, and learn something. Lately, I’m opting more for the latter.

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This is me after I had “met my appropriate edge” on a run.

It was serious business (obviously).

Well, truthfully, the whole idea of meeting my appropriate edge IS kind of a BFD to me. And it’s become a touchstone of sorts as I move through the world.

In January, I did Yoga with Adriene 22 out of 31 days (which for a recovering perfectionist like me seems… fine, I guess. But, truly, part of me just wants to be like: Dude, you couldn’t have bucked up and done those extra 9 days?!?). Look, I’m just going to go ahead and admit that I’m a little taken with the whole Yoga with Adriene scene. I like a yogi who can say the kind of random, absurd things that run through my head OUT LOUD on a YouTube channel with millions of subscribers. She totally has convos with her dog while leading a yoga practice. She makes me laugh. And reminds me to be kind to myself. And that I don’t need to be perfect. I just need to acknowledge where I am right now, today, in this moment.

Anyway, she’s constantly saying  “meet your appropriate edge.” Which just bounces around in my head, even off the mat. It’s kind of brilliant. I mean, if she just told me to meet my edge, well, I’d have to take that as a challenge. Even though I know it’s not meant to be. But my appropriate edge changes from day to day. It allows for softening when I’m injured or feeling vulnerable and for pushing when I’m feeling vibrant, energetic, and ready for forward momentum.

Telling me to meet my appropriate edge implies an inherent trust that I know what that edge is. That I can trust myself.

This whole foot debacle has taught me a lot–about my body and myself. And, no, I didn’t ask to learn any of it. I’d rather have been running consistently, instead of in fits & starts. But, no one asked me before the Universe threw me this “learning opportunity.” So I’m making the best of it (and making a list of things to remember):

  1. 43 requires more care & maintenance of my body than 33 did. I can’t ignore the tightness in my hips and assume it will go away. It won’t. I can’t jet off for a run without stretching. I’ll really regret it later.
  2. Everything is connected, in running and in life. My foot pain? Caused by my hips. For real.
  3. Yoga, stretching, and listening to my body will keep me healthy and running.
  4. Stubbornness is over-rated.
  5. The negative, self-sacrificial messages I internalized about self-care as a kid were some bullshit. And they’ve got to go. To care for the people around me like I want to, I must care for myself. The two are inextricably linked.

Which means that, while I run, I’ve got to pay attention to what my body is saying. Of course, it always cusses on the hills (so do I. Like, for real, if you’re offended by cussing, EARMUFFS when I run by).

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On the day of the serious-meeting-my-edge picture, I was relatively pain free until about 2 miles in. Then I could feel the muscles in my foot begin to tighten. By 2.25 miles, it hurt. Bad. Typically, I would’ve just pushed through. I would’ve been all grit and suffering and like-hell-I’m-gonna-quit-before-I-get-to-3-miles. But, this time, I just stopped. And there was some bizarrely glorious freedom in just letting myself be. 

I’m more trustworthy than I used to be. That’s what the idea of meeting my appropriate edge reminds me. I have intuition & insight–but I have to listen to myself, to my body, to my heart to access them.

In order to lead the BIG, joyous, fulfilling life that I want, I have to trust myself.

Meeting my appropriate edge that one day lead me to two more runs this week where my appropriate edge looked a lot more like this:

That feels like a pretty big win these days.

 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Book of Qualities

A sweet friend gifted me this book. Out of the blue. Because he thought I should have it.

The gesture made me a little teary. But, page by page, it meant even more that he’d chosen me for this book. Because it’s lovely. It speaks with such a gentle honesty.

It’s a treasure, this book. I loved it so much that I wanted to draw it out, to savor it bit by bit. So I limited myself to two–maybe three–qualities per day. Right before bed. Reading it was a balm. And it offered me poignant insight that I often dwelled upon as I drifted off to sleep.

Each quality of the human condition–worry, pleasure, competition, forgiveness, intensity  (99 in total)–gets a personality, a style of dress, a mode of moving through the world, an energy, and a smattering of favorite things:

Change wears my sister’s moccasins… He likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I’m at my drawing table…Change is very musical, but sometimes you must listen for a long time before you hear the pattern in his music.

The “negative” qualities spoke to me the most. I began to understand them differently and to look on them with a new tenderness. After all, they are my teachers; it seems only right to respect them, even if I can’t always welcome them.

I finished the book weeks ago.

It’s still on my nightstand, where I can keep it close.

The Shark Stands Alone (with coffee)

One of my girlfriends, who I adored with what I’m now sure must’ve felt like stifling intensity, really enjoyed spending time alone.

No, not like time alone with me. Time alone. Like by herself.

This baffled me.

What did she think when she was by herself? Didn’t she get bored? What was going on in her head that required time without me?

If my response to her wanting a damn minute to herself seems a bit off-the-wall to you… GOOD. That’s likely because you’re a well adjusted human.

Good work.

I, on the other hand, was a college-aged kid who was terrified to spend a minute alone with my own thoughts. I was so afraid of my own interior life that I didn’t even believe I HAD thoughts to mull over. It never occurred to me that thoughts were supposed to be a precursor to conversation. Nope. I didn’t really analyze much of anything until it was flying out of my mouth.

I discovered a lot about what I thought and believed by hashing it out with other people. Which was great, mostly. But I still couldn’t stand to be alone. And I resented the hell out of my girlfriend for wanting a private thought life.  Or maybe it was less resentment & more jealousy. I wanted to be interesting enough to spend time alone.

I tried that once… spending time alone. I went out to a cabin in the woods by myself. Not that I’d planned it that way. I’d been dating a girl for a couple years. We’d booked the cabin for our anniversary. Then we broke up a few weeks before the trip. I decided to go anyway. I was filled with all kinds of I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar independence. I’d go and relish the time alone. I was sure of it.

In the woods, by myself, I was struck with the most breathtaking loneliness. Even well over a decade later, if I’m outside when the light hits the trees just right, I can still feel the aching emptiness in my chest. Even thinking about the forest brings on this intense melancholy.

I wish I was kidding. I am not.

So, yeah, solo camping isn’t for me.

But being able to think IS for me. Digging through my internal landscape and using my brain to uncover what I thing about something before I open my mouth… yeah, that’s for me, too. It’s such a gift, this ability to be alone. To not be terrified what my mind will turn over and over if don’t fill every second with constant chatter. To like my own company. Hell, to like myself.

I’m so grateful that I reckoned with enough of my emotional wreckage to not ever have to wonder again why someone might need a minute alone. The peace that comes with solitude, and the connection to myself and the world around me, is a grounding force in my life. Running, yoga, meditation (which I’m awful at. So bad) connect me to myself. Which feels a little miraculous and a lot triumphant.

Because that’s what I’d been running from the whole time: ME.

 

 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Stef Soto, Taco Queen

A taco truck + protective parents + tween angst = Stef Soto’s seventh grade year.

Middle school is a train wreck, no matter who you are. But as a kid, you don’t know that. The popular kids seem to have discovered the key to survival, while you’re fumbling around trying to hide zit on your nose (or in this case, the smell of taco sauce in your hair).

Add one old taco truck and a set of overprotective parents (few things are EVER as embarrassing to a seventh grader as their parents) and you’ve got Stef Soto’s life wrapped up in a tortilla.

As much as I love middle grade fiction, Jennifer Torres’ novel missed the mark for me because I’m not a seventh grader. Torres captured the self-absorption of being a tween so well that I found myself rolling my eyes at Steph. She exasperated me the way that seventh graders often exasperate their parents. Which is perfect, really.

At 12 years old, I would’ve found pieces of myself reflected in Stef Soto, for sure. I knew what it was like to feel wrong so much of the time and to constantly work to throw off the labels my peers had stuck me with. But Stef also would’ve taught me things, like how fragile the American Dream can be. And that sometimes an entire family has to invest in that dream for it to succeed. All eye rolling aside.

Stef Soto is perfect just the way she’s written. She’s honest, angsty, eye-rolling, grateful… She’s learning. And she gives other kids space to do the same.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Little Tragedy

The Little Tragedy presents some big existential questions. And delivers them in a fast-paced narrative that I couldn’t put down.

Ever worry about the state of the world we’re passing along to our children?

Yeah. Me, too.

Which is why The Little Tragedy, by Jeff Haws, freaked me the hell out. Seriously.

It’s science-fictiony and dystopian–and probable enough to be deeply disruptive. This novel managed to make me pick apart and analyze the reasons I chose to have a child, my believes about the sanctity of life (and what actually constitutes life), and whether only having a limited amount of time with my child would change my choice to bring her into the world.

On top of all those existential questions, destiny also plays a significant role in this novel. Can we escape our destiny (either through denial or foolish choices)? To what extent do universal work to ensure we fulfill our destiny? And (probably my favorite) do we ever truly understand our importance in the world?

Haws writes multi-dimensional, believable characters. He creates the kind of scenarios that play out in the world every day–ones that have no clear hero or villain. Just folks acting shockingly human.

Toward the end, the narrative becomes incredibly fast-paced. I skim-read because I needed to know what happened. Like RIGHT THEN.

I was left with some unanswered questions. But it’s impressive that Haws created a novel that made me want to know MORE about the fictional world he created. I like being left with a few questions nagging at my mind. Because that’s the sign of a story that just won’t let go.