On Writer’s Block, Poems, Mom Jeans

Let’s talk about writer’s block.

It sucks.

And lately, I’ve been struggling with it quite a bit.

Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not writer’s block even exists or what it is defined as, but when you’re experiencing something akin to it, it can be easy to get really down on yourself and think you’ll never be able to write again.  It really does become that dramatic sometimes.

A few years back I was taking a poetry class in college.  Most of my classmates, myself included, had all been in the same previous level poetry class the semester before.  It was magical how prolific we all were, and how unafraid we were to try new things and share with each other.

But then…something happened at the beginning of that second semester together.  Many of us started to doubt.  We made excuses before reading a poem.  We complained that we just weren’t inspired.  We were blocked.  We had run out of ideas.  We panicked.

That mindset has a special way of crushing your joy.  And in my experience, I was reduced to tears of desperation on more than one occasion.  But in the middle of it all, I received an email from a girl in my class.  And I’m going to share part of it with you all because there’s a chance one of my might need to hear these words:

Here’s me telling you that you’re a writer. And you matter. And your words make my life better…even ones you don’t like or have a hard time putting down. Just promise you’ll never stop! And promise me that when I’m wearing mom pants you’ll send me your poems because I know that I’ll need them.

I printed it out and kept it close, and although she and I have drifted apart, both geographically and relationally, I’m reminded that she made me promise I’d never stop writing.  Even when I’m at a loss for words.  Even when I don’t like the words I find.  And especially when the words are hard to write.

So a thanks to her, and to my ever-patient professor who dealt with an entire class in crisis all at once.  And a thank you to all of you for reading.

Do you have any cure-all methods for dealing with writer’s block?  Any encouraging words you’ve kept close?

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Unique, Just Like Everyone Else

There’s a saying that goes something like, “I’m unique…just like everybody else.” We all want to be seen as trailblazers, as independent, as original, to see the world differently from anyone else. We want that to be true.

So what does that look like?

How can we strive to be unique when, for the most part, we’re the same as everyone else. Is it a futile exercise?

I was out with friends once, and made small talk with an older gentleman sitting at the bar. He looked around and said, “I already know everyone in here. I’ve known them all before.” He didn’t mean it literally, of course. But he meant that each person in there met a previously established prototype in his experience. There has been someone like us before and there will be another one after. There are probably some existing even at the same time. Whoaaaa, crazy, huh?

As an artist, it has been ingrained in me as truth that nothing I create will ever be an original idea. That’s hard to hear sometimes. But even as I write this, there are probably hundreds of other blog entries that talk about this same thing.

But today, I think of it this way:

We are a thousand different perspectives on an elephant. We might all be looking at the same elephant, but from each of our unique sum of experiences, we’re standing in different places in the field. One person’s view of the elephant is strictly two-dimensional. But when we combine everyone’s two-dimensional views from a thousand different places, we end up with a three-dimensional creature. We can describe it from where we stand, and it’s one thing, but combined with everyone else’s views, it becomes more whole and complex–literally multi-dimensional.

The man at the bar might see me as fitting the characteristics of someone else in his experience, but to someone else, I am completely different altogether, perhaps fitting a completely different prototype. I am the sum of the experience of everyone I meet. I am the sum of my views of myself. And everything I experience is through my own lens.

So in a sense, there is potential for originality. But not based on any one person’s view–not even your own.

How do you view yourself? How might someone else view you differently? How does this affect the practice of self-definition?

Photo credits: anankkml & africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Lies I Tell My Single Self

Are you single?  Awesome.  Me too.  But lately I’ve realized that I’m benching myself when it comes to the dating game.  Somewhere along the way I developed an identity as the token single friend, and I couldn’t understand how that happened.  That is, until I realized I was telling myself lies that, single or not, aren’t good for anybody.

Today Ally Spotts has published a guest post written by me!  Continue reading The Lies I Tell My Single Self at her blog…

The Universal Ache of Mattering

Story conference attempt #3 (see #1 and #2):

My friends and I were really obsessed with the Lord of the Rings movies in high school.  If you’re honest with yourself, I’d venture to say you were probably a little bit obsessed, too.  So when I heard that Sean Astin was going to be appearing at Story, I was pretty stoked.  Some know him best as Rudy or as Mikey from The Goonies, but he’ll always be Sam to me…

Reading through my notes now, about a week after the event, I’m remembering that he spoke to something that’s been in my heart of hearts, and one of the recurring themes of this blog.  He told us that when he got the phone call telling him he had landed the role of Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he fell to his knees and cried.  Why?

“I knew I was going to get to do something that really mattered,” he said.

And that’s something that I’ve been searching for for quite a while now.  There’s a tension between needing a job and needing a purpose.  Something about sitting in a cubicle or pulling shots just doesn’t do it for me–it’s a way to earn a living, but not a way I want to spend a life.  I want to use my skills, but more than that, I want to use them in a way that really matters.

Sean said, “Artists thrive when they feel like they can make a difference.”

Absolutely.  I get that.  And I’m dying to make a difference somewhere.  It’s this deep down desire, an ache that I’m called to do so much more.  Someone once pointed out to me that a job is ultimately exchanging hours of your life for pay.  I don’t want to get to the end of my life and realize I made a poor exchange.  The challenge is just knowing what that looks like practically.

I want that moment when I’m crippled to my knees with the realization that I’m going to get to do something that really matters.  I think it’s a universal ache.  Our souls crying for something more.  I want to make a difference.  I want to thrive.

Have you had a moment like this?  What did it look like?  How did you answer it?

One Unholy Smear

Story Conference blog post attempt #2:

One of my favorite speakers from Story was Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are.  She’s a farmer’s wife, and was quick to tell us that she didn’t have any special insight into being a creative.  But after that, she wove a beautiful tale of vision, poetry, scars and beauty, slowing down and speaking a “language of amazement” to a culture of despair.

And she said something right at the beginning: “Creativity is being comfortable with not knowing what comes next.”

I’ve been so concerned with what to do next.  Practical questions: Grad school?  Job?  Where do I want to live?  Existential questions of who am I, and what do I want to become?  What do I want to be known for?  And how quickly and efficiently can I answer all of these questions?  It’s my crisis of being, and I’ve been frantic to try to figure it out.  It’s what this whole blog is about, for goodness sakes!

But through the course of her talk, she reminded us to be comfortable where we are, to focus on the small, overlooked moments.  And the way she cast this vision lulled me into a state of peaceful quietness, yet with an underlying thrum of excitement.

“Life is not an emergency,” she said.  “We take all the moments and blur them into one unholy smear.”

And I remembered my time in Oregon, in a cabin out of the mainstream and away from all things hectic.  Our lives have this crazy way of filling up with noise–TV season premieres, Twitter updates, text messages–that it’s so easy to forget to just sit still every once in a while.  To enjoy this gift of today.

And maybe it’s in this quiet enjoyment of the world that creative solutions arise to solve our frantic problems.

When was the last time you slowed down or slipped out of the mainstream?  Have you ever had a solution come to you in a time of extreme noise?  Extreme quiet?

Story-goers: What were some of your favorite quotes?

A Community of Children Who Survived: Story 2011

Five days ago, I packed up my most hipster-looking outfits and my Moleskine notebook

Hipster clothes laid out

Laying out my most hipster-looking clothes--complete with plaid shirt, skinny jeans, cardigans, TOMS shoes.

and headed downtown for two days of creative experience overload.  Today I’m sitting in front of a mostly blank page, trying to put into words what exactly I got from this, and how I feel about it today.  How can I sum everything up in one eloquent and concise blog post for general consumption?  Frankly, it’s impossible.  But over the next week, I’ll be reflecting on it, and I’ll try to record some of these reflections here.  Here’s attempt #1:

The thing about being both 1) unemployed, and 2) a person who blogs, is that they can both be rather lonely things.  My days, for the most part, tend to be filled with solitude, which is lovely at times, but too much of it can border on just plain aloneness.  At Story, I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of like-minded people.  These were my people, or as Seth Godin calls it, my tribe.  They were open and creative, they were young at heart (this quote from Blaine Hogan’s performance describes it perfectly: “The creative adult is the child who survived.” -Ursula McGuin), they were genuinely interested in each other.

Something magical happened when I was surrounded by people who valued the same creative mentality that I do.  I felt understood.  I felt safe.  I felt smart, and like I had something important to say.  These were the kind of people who valued each others’ stories.  Instead of being shy and withdrawn and unsure like I can be around people I don’t know, I felt free to be completely myself.  I got to be me at my best, and I was shocked to see how easily it came to me.

Me, Wizard, Alice, Dinosaur

Me, Wizard, Alice, Dinosaur

So a special thank you to all of my kindred spirits, especially my dear Alice Sullivan, partner-in-crime extraordinaire, and Jeff Goins who was responsible for my being there to begin with, and who, despite missing the beginning of the last session, and standing amid the tear-down of the gallery, made sure he spoke with me and never once seemed distracted nor disinterested.  So many wonderful people with beautiful stories.  Thank you all.

Being a part of this community was so wonderful–maybe the best part of the whole two days, as far as I’m concerned–experiencing all of this together, as a tribe.  Now we’ve all gone back to our respective homes and our respective lives, and I’m left wondering how to continue this community now that we’re apart.  Do I hold on somehow (and if so, how?), or do I just appreciate it as a beautiful moment?

When have you felt a part of your tribe?  How did you continue that experience?

Story-goers, what was your primary takeaway?  Favorite quote?  Favorite speaker?  Favorite experience?

3 Thoughts on Putting Myself in a Box

A couple of days ago, I found out I had won a ticket to the STORY Conference thanks to Jeff Goins over at his wonderful blogSTORY 2011 is a two day experience for creatives–artists, filmmakers, writers, designers, musicians, etc.  I am SO excited to meet and network with fellow creatives, and to learn from some folks who have really “made it” in their field.

The only catch to winning the free ticket was that it was such short notice.  I got my ticket on Sunday, and the conference is tomorrow and Friday.  I looked at the business cards I had received as a college graduation gift two years ago and quickly realized they were not going to do for the type of event I was going to.  I had to come up with a new design, and find a place that would print them fast!

The latter problem was hard enough, but not impossible to solve–I ended up finding a place online that could do next day printing and delivery without costing me both my arms and legs–just one of each.  It was the design that had me quite baffled.

The whole point of personal branding (which is what I was doing by coming up with new business card designs) is essentially to stereotype yourself–to be able to put yourself in a nice little package to present to others.  Usually they list the company you work for and your position within said company, but what if you don’t have a job (ahem)?  And how do I successfully package myself when my blog topic preaches the opposite–that people can’t be defined or identified by vocation alone?

I did three different things to consider my design strategy:

  1. I included social media links to make it easy to connect online.  Many people found out about this conference through Twitter or Facebook, so having ways to connect with me through social media was key.  I included Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and of course, this blog link.
  2. I utilized both sides of the business card and included key phrases to describe myself.  The back of the card has all of my social media links.  The front of the card has my name, e-mail address, and basic descriptors, so that the person I’m handing the card to has the basic gist of what I’m about.  In line with my blog entry A Living vs. A Life, I described myself with things I am literally doing as opposed to identity-limiting words (e.g. “blogging” as opposed to “blogger” – I’m more than just a blogger, but blogging is part of what I do).
  3. I used artwork that said something about me.  I incorporated a tree I drew by hand and then traced on Adobe Illustrator.  It’s a nod to my Twitter bio – “My hands are bloody from digging.  I lift them, hold them open in the wind so they can branch like a tree.” –Rainer Maria Rilke – which is something I resonate with as a poet and as someone at this unknown stage in my life.  Additionally, I’m marketing myself as an artist, so including some art I’ve done was kind of a no-brainer.  I also just dig trees.  I think they’re a great metaphor for life.  I collect them.  They’re awesome.

So, all that being said, I am NOT a graphic designer or a personal branding expert by any stretch of the imagination, but here’s what I came up with:

Business Card

I just got them in the mail, and I’m pretty happy with the result.  I am constantly evolving into the person I want to be, but for this snapshot moment in my life, this looks pretty good to me.

If you see me at STORY, I’d love to give you one, and get one of yours!  And if you’re reading this blog entry because of my card–yippee!  It worked!

What do your business cards or personal branding strategies say about you?

Designer friends–What could I do differently the next time around?

Who am I going to see at STORY tomorrow?  Are you as stoked as I am?!

The 9/11 Generation

I was a high school freshman in my second period Social Science class, doodling when I should have been taking notes.  A teacher from another class briskly walked in.  She was flustered and didn’t know how to explain what was going on.  “Hijacking, some kind of hijacking.  Turn on the TV.”

In that moment, we became metaphorical zombies.  Walking from class to class–more like TV to TV.  We were inundated by news coverage all day.  Towers burning, Pentagon burning, crashing metal, smoking fields.  I remember a girl outside the theater, crumpled to the floor, crying, crying.  I remember my third period choir teacher yelling and swearing as towers collapsed.

I was old enough to know that this was something huge.  Something horrible.  Something irreversible and history-altering.  Old enough to see the fear on my teachers’ faces.  Old enough to know that thousands of people were dead or soon doomed to die.

I was yet still too young to know what to do with this information, where to put it in my small experience of the world.  Not old enough to drive, much less old enough to know how to cope with something of this magnitude and significance.

I got home that day, and the house was dark and empty.  I called my mom, an FBI agent, eager to hear her voice and know that she was okay.  What I didn’t know is that she had been stationed at O’Hare International Airport that day to deal with whatever might happen there.  She didn’t have cell phone service, and the land line number I had didn’t work.  By the time she got a hold of me, I was a panicked mess.  She said, “I’m going to be working late for a while.  Go next door and ask them if you can eat dinner with them tonight.”

I could not comprehend having to sit down and do the Algebra homework assigned in my first period class.

We were a generation who came of age during a time of chaos, a time of war, a time of fear.  My generation, the Latest Greatest Generation, is represented by the troops stationed in the Middle East, fighting for our freedom and our country.  Fighting so that I can sit here in my room and type these sentences without fear for my personal safety.  The loss of life on 9/11/01 was horrendous.  But I feel the need to remind people that the death isn’t over.  Members of my generation are in combat, coming home with injuries, visible or not, or not coming home at all.  Let’s keep them all in our prayers today.

Witnessing such destruction is overwhelming.  It’s devastating to the soul.  And one of the most frustrating things to me is not knowing how I can help.  So today, as small as it seems, I vow to create something.  Dwelling on the past only brings sadness.  We’ve had sadness for ten years now.  Starting today, I’m doing my part to create.  To bring a little light into this dark age.

What are you going to do to commemorate today?

What is your 9/11 story?

A Living vs. A Life

Earlier today I was having a conversation with a new acquaintance about writing.  He asked me, “Do you write?”  A seemingly simple and straightforward question.  But I found this to be interesting for what he didn’t ask…

He didn’t ask, “Are you a writer?”  These two questions are different forms of the ubiquitous, “What do you do?”  The first questions action, the second questions identity.

Somewhere along the way “What do you do?” became a question of identity rather than a question of action.  We started responding, “I’m an actor,” “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m a data entry processor.”  But none of these really capture our true selves, nor do they suggest anything more outside of vocation.  We let ourselves be confined to one dimension.

What if “What do you do?” became a literal question.  If it’s true that actions speak louder than words, then reflecting on this question might paint a more interesting and detailed image of ourselves.  We are multidimensional creatures.  We are more than our vocation.  We are depth that cannot be captured in a single word or sentence.

“Are you a writer?” implies a confining definition, whereas “Do you write?” leaves room for a more intricate, multifaceted identity.  “Are you a writer?” is a box to contain, and “Do you write?” is one part of a greater whole.  When we identify ourselves as something, that’s usually where it ends.  We’ve limited ourselves to that definition.

I had a college writing professor who encouraged us not to limit our identity to being writers, but place writing alongside other aspects of our whole selves.  It involved placing less emphasis on what we do–or want to do–for a living, and more on what we do to live.  “I’m a fisherman who practices law.” “I’m a coffee-enthusiast who teaches high school.”  “I’m a father who writes poetry.”  Being a writer (or anything else, for that matter) need not be a confining, limiting identity; it can be an additive one.

So when asked a broad question of identity such as,
“Are you a writer?” or “What do you do?”

I would challenge us to respond:
“I’m a ___ who ___.”

What do you see are the differences between “Do you write?” and “Are you a writer?”

How would you define yourself differently than you may have been defining yourself in the past?

How does changing the way we define ourselves to others change the way we see ourselves?

Forging a Hero’s Life

A friend of mine recently came to live with me for a couple of weeks until her lease begins in September.  She’s been essentially homeless for nearly a month, is neck-deep in debt from recently getting her master’s degree, and now she can’t find a job.  A New York native, she’s a long way from home and family here in Chicago, and to top it all off, she and her boyfriend are parting ways–he’s leaving for, of all places, New York.

This morning she received notice that she owes the great city of Chicago $100 for running a red light in a friend’s car.  Where does it end?  But she said something to me this morning about how a heroine’s, or hero’s, journey always begins with hardship.  They start in poverty or loneliness or sadness.  Only eventually do they end up living “happily ever after” (a blog post in itself–what does that even mean, and does it really exist?).  But right now, we’re in the beginnings of our journey as the hero/heroine of our own story.

So often when growing up, or even now that I’m in the middle of my job search, I’ve been told that I have a bright future ahead, that I will accomplish something great with my life.  A job interviewer once even told me that he didn’t have a place for me in his company, but that I’ll “be a rock star” someday.  Hear it enough, and you actually start to believe it.  But after a while, if you let them, those words become hollow and meaningless.  I grow impatient with getting the show on the road.  I want to accomplish this great thing, whatever that is, NOW.  I want to make a difference already!

But that’s not what the hero’s journey is.  It’s five parts agony and one huge part redemption.  It paying your dues, it’s patience, it’s constant self-improvement and hard work.  When I get impatient and perfectionistic, I could do well to remember this.

When I talk to established folks about their journeys to where they are now, it is nearly always a winding journey: like my mother who got her degree in journalism and advertising and became an FBI agent; my neighbor who was a scientist before founding a charter school in inner city Chicago; Blake Mycoskie, who stumbled into the shoe business after a trip to Argentina and founded TOMS.  But it’s so hard when you’re in the middle of it all, and don’t know where you’ll end up.  If only I could have a glimpse of what I would be doing in the future.  No matter what it is, I just want to know I’ll be okay someday.  That would make this whole journey much easier, but it would also make it so much less predictable–leaving less room for excitement, and if I’m being optimistic, less room for the fun that comes along with unpredictability.

If I’m going to be the heroine of my own story, I need to be able to accept the hardship that goes into forging a hero.  And someday I’ll be able to look back and marvel at that season of my life that I was an unemployed blogger, or an underpaid barista, or the opposite of a rock star.

P.S.  For those that were wondering what I used as my six-word memoir, here it is:

Trying, not whining; doing, not sitting.