I Am Not My Work

Art by Benjamin Gabriel

Not too long ago, I wrote about how being a writer is meaningless. I’ve continued to think about that idea, and today I just want to share some thoughts about it.

I used to want to be a famous writer. Actually, I had a very specific goal — to have my works included in literary text books for high school and college students. I wanted my writing to be considered definitive of an era. After all, anyone can write a book, but in order to feel that I was really a good writer, I needed to be the best writer.

My entire identity and self-worth was wrapped up in this idea of being a great writer, and if you’ve any idea of what the publishing industry looks like right now, you can probably imagine how this is a problem. No one wants to publish your book? Probably because you’re worthless as a human being. That was pretty much my internal dialogue for a few years.

The prospect of earning a living as a writer was terrifying. I loved writing because it was literally my main tool for navigating the world. I trusted no one but my own writing, and I was completely wrapped up in my own inner world, which is why I had no close friends for a really long time. To turn that into a source of income made me feel too vulnerable, and I was unwilling to do any writing I didn’t really love.

At the same time, my yoga practice was starting to teach me, “You are not your job. You are not your belongings. You are not your social status.” I still struggled with the idea that I needed to be something more, something better. I needed to be great but couldn’t wrap my mind around what that meant.

Only when I started teaching yoga did that change. When I’m teaching a class, I don’t want to be famous, to prove myself, or to impress anyone. All I want is to do a good job for the people in front of me. When they visibly improve from one class to the next and say “thank you” to me at the end of the day, I have the most amazing feeling of success I’ve ever had.

I no longer feel that need to prove myself as a great writer. I write because I love it and because it’s a good tool for me. Writing is now part of my yoga, part of how I understand the world, but it’s no longer my identity.

After all these years, I realize:

I am not a writer.
I am a me.
Writing is something I do.
My writing does not define me.
I do.

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Own Your Art. Yes, Art.

MetalTypeZoomIn
This week I visited my grad school, Goucher College, as a panelist for an alumni roundtable discussion. I volunteered because I wanted to talk with my peers and see who else was writing online or self-publishing, but apparently I am one of a very small number. Instead of networking with fellow writers, I found myself in a position to share my experience of self-publishing with anyone interested (yay!) and to defend my choice to self-publish (awkward). In retrospect, there are a few points I would like to clarify but most importantly, this:

There’s more than one way to be a writer, and I’m tired of “professionals” who don’t get it. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I went to grad school with some highly accomplished writers, and was mentored by some of the top names in creative nonfiction. And I chose self-publishing anyway. Now I want to tell you why.

I see a lot of good writers struggling to get published in the traditional market — smart, passionate people who simply aren’t getting published. They are accomplished writers and reporters, and they care immensely about their work, but they can’t find an agent or publisher who thinks they can sell it.

I also see a lot of books published that are good but not necessarily better than those struggling writers. I see book stores filled with boring books. Often, they contain no big ideas but are just clever in a forgettable way.

I occasionally see extraordinarily good books in traditional publishing and equally good work from independent writers. I’m not saying no one in traditional publishing is doing a good job, but I’m saying getting published by Random House or Penguin or anyone else doesn’t make you a good writer. Just like choosing self-publishing doesn’t make you a bad writer.

Some of us have heard enough times that what we want to do will never sell, and we don’t want to waste our time trying to fit a mold that doesn’t suit us. When I decided to self-publish my manuscript, I wasn’t thinking about book sales (I assumed I would have very few), but I wanted to put this work out in the world because I was proud of it. I didn’t want to dedicate the next two years to getting the damned thing published, though, so I did it myself.

My feelings about traditional publishing are strikingly similar to my feelings about kids: “Not right now, thanks.” Right now, my honest-to-goodness most important work is teaching yoga and writing about what I believe in on my blog. Maybe in 10 years I will have done something interesting enough to write a book about and people will want to read that. At that point, I would consider selling that book to a publisher, but I’d also seriously consider publishing it myself. If I play my cards right, I could have a pretty sweet audience and not need the support of a publisher, so that’s my long-term plan. Alternatively, if I do build that kind of audience, a publisher might find it worthwhile to help me print an excellent book for them, so I’ll cross that bridge if I ever get to it.

Reality is that I don’t have a huge audience because I’m just starting out and still finding my way. I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of, and I’m damn sure it doesn’t make me any less intelligent or less capable a writer than my peers. I’m aware of some things I’m doing well and some things I need to improve. Every time I take those steps to improve, I see the benefit in terms of increased audience and class attendance, and I find that extremely satisfying. I don’t know for sure where I’ll be in terms of my writing and my audience in 10 years, but I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

The other two panelists on Saturday were highly accomplished men, one being a New York Times bestselling author, and the other being the author of several highly praised books. They were both also in their 50s while I’m 30, so the gap in our accomplishments may look like a lot, but I feel certain that I’m on track to be their equal or better. Although I have chosen the self-publishing route, I am not less of a serious writer than anyone else at Goucher. I have however chosen to work from the ground up rather than to “aim high and work your way down” as folks kept suggesting on Saturday night. Aim high, to this crowd, seems to mean getting an occasional pittance from a large print publication and spending months writing draft after draft of a book proposal. That is the writer’s life we were all told to expect. We’ve all heard about the boatloads of rejections received by our favorite authors. So, I guess if you don’t have a scrapbook of rejection letters or a room wallpapered with them you’re somehow cheating. Maybe it’s not fair that everyone else has to jump through all the hoops while I’ve simply chosen not to play that game.

One person who seemed compelled to defend me whether he agreed with me or not compared self-publishing to being in a garage band while pursuing traditional publishing is more like playing big arenas. I guess it’s worth mentioning that I don’t go to big arena concerts very often (they’re usually overpriced and not as fun as I’m hoping), and I do love a good small town punk show or free concert in the park. Anyway, there’s no right or wrong about it, but it’s my preference to start where I am, writing for myself, self-publishing my work, honing my voice, and building my audience a little bit at a time.

The choice to self-publish or not has nothing to do with legitimacy and everything to do with your goals as a writer. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you feel driven to write? Who do you want to reach? How do you want to be remembered? Right now, my entire focus is on doing work that I can be proud of. Some of that work is poetry, essays, blog posts, and even my current attempt at fiction. But I’m also really proud of the yoga classes I teach, the volunteer work I do, and the podcast I run. The decision to self-publish was part of a larger decision to take control of my work, my life, and my own creativity. Self-publishing is part of my intentional and yes even methodical process of building the life I want. It is not for everyone, but right now, it’s definitely right for me.

Finally, there’s one specific comment I want to address. One of the panelists announced on Saturday, “No one in this room is an artist,” just as I finished explaining that self-publishing is all about owning your art. His point was that writers do not produce great work in total solitude. We need editors. We need beta readers. We need designers. We need publicists. This is all true, and it applies to traditional and self-published authors alike. However, if you do not write like an artist … well, now you know why I’m not reading your books.

You go find your audience and I’ll go find mine. In 500 years if anyone remembers either of us, it’ll be a miracle. Meanwhile, I plan on enjoying what I came here to do.

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Weekly Assignment: Practice Gratitude

Maya Angelou graffiti and Life Doesn't Frighten Me poem

Every day this week, write down five things you’re grateful for. Try to write different things every day, but write whatever comes to mind. You’ll quickly start to see that you have much to be grateful for. If you’re having a rough day, feel free to start simply. Be grateful for the roof over your head, the birds singing outside, having enough to eat, that driver who let you change lanes in heavy traffic, your cat, the poker game you played last week, whatever.

In her book, Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou describes how her mentor taught her to practice gratitude. She was in the midst of an awful depression and felt like no one could help her.

I told him I was going crazy. He said no and then asked, “What’s really wrong?” and I, upset that he had not heard me said, “I thought about killing myself today and killing Guy. I’m telling you I’m going crazy.”

Wilkie said, “Sit down right here at this table, here is a yellow pad and here is a ballpoint pen. I want you to write down your blessings.”

I said, “Wilkie, I don’t want to talk about that, I’m telling you I am going crazy.”

He said, “First, write down that I said write down and think of the millions of people all over the world who cannot hear a choir, or a symphony, or their own babies crying. Write down, I can hear — Thank God. Then write down that you can see this yellow pad, and think of the millions of people around the world who cannot see a waterfall, or flowers blooming, or their lover’s face. Write I can see — Thank God. Then write down that you can read. Think of the millions of people around the world who cannot read the news of the day, or a letter from home, a stop sign on a busy street, or … ”

I followed Wilkie’s orders and when I reached the last line on the first page of the yellow pad, the agent of madness was routed.

That incident took place over fifty years ago. I have written some twenty-five books, maybe fifty articles, poems, plays and speeches all using ballpoint pens and writing on yellow pads.

When I decide to write anything, I get caught up in my insecurity despite the prior accolades. I think uh, uh, now they will know I am a charlatan that I really cannot write and write well. I am almost undone, then I pull out a new yellow pad and as I approach the clean page, I think of how blessed I am.

As you continue to practice intentional gratitude, you create a shift in your own awareness. You start looking for things in your life that you can be grateful for, and the more you look for them, the more you find. Does practicing gratitude actually create more awesome things in your life or does it just help you see what you’ve been overlooking? Does it matter?

Start now. What are you grateful for?

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James Baldwin on Love and Identity

james_baldwin

“I left the church when I was 17. Have not joined anything since … I’ve been afflicted with so many labels that I became invisible to myself.”

-James Baldwin in an interview with Terry Gross

My parents gave me a collection of “Fresh Air” interviews for Christmas, and I’ve been listening to the writer interviews. They are, of course, awesome. I particularly enjoyed the one with James Baldwin, as he seemed to be less affected, less put-on than the other writers she interviewed … even Allen Ginsberg, and we know how I love him. And then he made the statements above.

Terry Gross was asking him about the gay rights movement in America. Baldwin was very quick to say that he never felt himself a part of that movement. He didn’t condemn it, by the way, just felt that he didn’t need to identify himself with a movement. To him, the more important thing was to discover who he himself was, not to identify with a group of people.

About love itself, he made a simple statement:

“Love is where you find it.”

For the full interview and several other great ones, I highly recommend listening toWriters Speak: Fresh Air with Terry Gross

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What if Ginsberg were a feminist?

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen (Marie Antoinette)

I have always considered myself a feminist. Even as a little kid. I don’t know why or where it came from. My mom was never a very liberal lady. It’s not like we sat around the dinner table talking about Gloria Steinem. Still, I considered myself a feminist because I didn’t like the assumptions boys made about me as a kid, the way they acted with an unspoken air of superiority when I was clearly (clearly!) smarter than them, more interesting, and bound for much greater things.

And yet, as I work on my new poetry collection, I’m feeling surprised at the intense feminist stuff coming from my pen. Today, I worked on a poem tentatively titled, “Anthem of the Great American Slut,” which is … something I never would’ve had the nerve to write or blog about a couple years ago. And I’m surprised at how strongly I feel about it. It’s a poem of intense female desire and shame, two things that are intimately linked if you grew up in Catholic schools right at the dawn of internet porn.

At the same time, I’m remembering that scene in Austin Powers when a young woman invites Austin back to her apartment. She offers to read him some of her poetry, and he excitedly agrees, assuming it’s going to be erotic poetry. She informs him that actually she writes political poetry and he resigns himself to a night of boredom, yawning rudely and rolling his eyes while she blithely reads on. While I write,I see a little Austin Powers in the back of my mind with a sarcastic face just yawning like, “Ugh. This. Is Not. Sexy.”

Beauty, according to Disney

Don’t get me wrong. I’m gonna write it anyway. I’m just having a bit of anxiety about how it will be received, if it’s received at all.

This may have to do with the fact that I’ve been studying Ginsberg again. I watched Howl the other night. The movie was not great. There’s a lot of unconvincing animation and not much action. However, the glimpse into Ginsberg’s personality and what prompted the poem is really valuable. And now, I find myself wanting to curse more and use the word “cunt” as liberally as he uses the word “cock,” because why not? But it feels more transgressive. It feels scary, even.

What Ginsberg had on his side was the fact that even though homosexuality was taboo, being a male and talking liberally about male homosexuality was shocking but still more acceptable than being female and openly acknowledging your (whisper) lady parts. That kind of talk was reserved for doctors’ offices and brothels. Maybe one awkward conversation with your mother while she bathed you at some point and explained that your privates were your special little secret.

I think this secrecy and shame around women’s bodies is bullshit and I want to blow the whole thing apart, but I’m still a product of my time like everyone else, which means I’m subject to the same shame and fear. But Ginsberg believed in writing what scares you, and I think he was onto something there. If I’m scared of it, then other people are probably scared of it, too. And if I’m lucky, maybe there’s someone out there just waiting for a poem that can hold their hand and look the fear in the eye with them.

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