It’s funny but AWP coincided with a couple other writing-life things. On the first day of the conference my story “Live Action Regret” was on the fiction Podcast No Extra Words. Considering the fact that I haven’t been writing much and that I didn’t have anything published at all in 2015, this was a much needed dose of encouragement. And it finally feels like it’s time to get back to work. Back to my book. Again.
Since my last post (nine months ago) I’ve spent most of my time just learning how to take better care of myself and how to be okay with not writing. I’ve been wanting to talk about this process but it feels all gross and self-helpy every time I do. So I guess I’ll just say this–in case you’ve got faulty brain chemistry like me and are looking to be not so miserable all the time–here are three things that helped: 1) Happify 2) Headspace 3) Going for walks out in the sunshine like it’s my job. (Endorphins and Vitamin D are for real!)
But back to getting back to work. In one of the guided meditations on Happify there was this women who talked that moment in meditation when you realize you’ve become distracted and it really stuck with me. She said: it’s important not to berate yourself for getting lost because it is in that very moment–where we recognize our wandering off–that instance is actually the most exciting part because that’s where we have the opportunity to truly become different.
I think my little story “Live Action Regret” is about experiencing those moments of formation where we try to become something else. Change is uncomfortable and big changes always feel so false. To me trying being positive has always felt false. The fact that I use a website called fucking Happify on a daily basis is absolutely ridiculous to me. In the past whenever I’ve tried to buy into the Elizabeth Gilbert/Oprah Magazine view on life it’s always felt like I was denying some truth about my nature that seemed to spring from my deepest sense of self. I’ve always been fascinated by the dark recesses of human psychology and existential dilemmas are pretty much my jam, so how the hell am I supposed to embrace positivity and still feel authentic?
Uncomfortably. Very uncomfortably.
Still, the bottom line is that everything is a construction, including the very idea of the self, even that convincing whim that says that the depressed version of myself is the “real me.” So why not bend the narrative in a way that’s useful? I guess that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and that is what I was trying get at in the story: the sheer power of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I’m a bad mom. I’m a hard worker. I’m an imposter. I’m doing the best I can. These things become who we are. And we can change them. Plasticity isn’t limited to brain function, the stories we tell are also malleable and there are several that we cling to without realizing it.
At AWP, “We The Animals” author Justin Torres was on a panel about coming-out narratives and I think he illustrated this dichotomy (of wanting to be positive but authentic) perfectly. He was talking about the “It Gets Better” campaign and how it’s great and all but then he sort of paused and shrugged his shoulders and was like “Does it get better? Really. Does it? Or is it better to say that was hard?”
I think the ability to sit with both feelings is essential though and that’s where the Oprah/Elizabeth Gilbert/Martha Beck acolytes drop out.
Right now in our culture of status updates this divide, between people who focus on the positive and those who live in less pleasant mind states, is more pronounced then ever. As a culture I’m sure we’ll get better at status updates eventually, but right now it’s like we’re still trying to figure out the point of it all. One of the best books I read last year was Clive Thompson’s “Smart Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds For The Better,” in it he addresses this perceived lack of value behind the status update. He explains that taken on its own a single status update seems rather benign. But if you take all the updates from one individual into consideration together over a period of time they can paint a picture or at the very least give you a sense of what’s going on with a friend who you might not have thought about otherwise, he calls this sense of perception ambient awareness. He discusses how this ambient awareness can also augment our real life interactions. Like when I met up with my MFA friends at AWP we had all read the same articles and seen the highlights from each others lives so we could cut to chase when it came to conversation.
But Thompson’s whole ambient awareness thing doesn’t work if we’re only broadcasting positive shit all the time and this bias is so prevalent on social media it’s hard to imagine life without it.
I also read Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” recently and have been thinking a lot about becoming. I learned two new literary terms in the process (definitions below are lifted directly from Wiki):
- Bildungsroman In literary criticism, a novel of formation, novel of education, or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is extremely important.
- Künstlerroman, meaning “artist’s novel” in English, is a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity. Such a work, usually a novel, tends to depict the conflicts of a sensitive youth against the values of a middle and upper class society of his or her time.
The week of AWP I got a Facebook memory notification of an update from six years earlier. In a status update I had written: “Cynthia is going to class at UCLA Extension before she get any dumber.” (Typo on purpose I hope).
I was on my way to my first creative writing class downtown when I had posted that and the memory popped up on my phone right as I was headed up to AWP. I’ve never really known what this blog is supposed to be about but I like the idea of it being a place to chart some sort of formation. Becoming a grown-up. Becoming a writer. Each tiny step forward and all the delays.
If the 26-year-old girl driving to her first writing class could have flashed forward and glimpsed at the unpublished 32-year-old on her way to AWP–let’s be real–she probably would have been disappointed. Six years? No book? WTF?
It made me think of that quote from Joan Dideon’s essay “On Keeping A Notebook”:
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.
…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; …”
It’s hard to imagine what the 38-year old me is going to hate about the 32-year old writing this post but at least she’ll have this notebook to fuel the fire (or perhaps extinguish it).