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This is Not Your Story

I wrote a short story with that title once: “This is Not Your Story.” I think it was a fantasy story, but really all I can remember now is the title. I suspect the story itself was not overly memorable.

When I was in London, I spent a lot of time walking around the city, and most of all, the parks. There is something intensely soothing to me about walking in that city’s leafy green spaces, occasionally stopping to take a picture or read a few chapters of a novel. And thinking. So much space for thought.

One thing I thought about a lot was how so much of what has been going on around me has very little to nothing to do with me. In one sense, it does, of course, because I have been present, I have been involved, I have had relationships of all kinds with people throughout my life. But even so, so much of it isn’t about me at all. It doesn’t have a lot to do with what has happened to me, or how I’ve felt, or what I’ve wanted, or what I’ve been thinking.

This is not my story.

Photo Credit: Brujo+ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Brujo+ via Compfight cc

I would like to be able to say that this realization has helped me take things less personally. That might even be true. But at the same time, it has made me keenly aware of my propensity to allow things to become my story, even though they really don’t belong to me.

I allow myself to be invisible. I allow myself to be crowded into a small space so there is more space for others. I allow my voice to cease being heard. I think, if only I say the right thing, if only I behave the right way, if only I am an even better listener, if only I am more understanding, if only I let this slide or keep my mouth shut or let it go because it’s not like it matters that much anyway (it’s not like I matter that much anyway, is really what I’m telling myself here), then everything will work and everyone will like me and I will finally be given the space I need to thrive.

To be clear, this is complete bullshit. It doesn’t work.

I’ve been having a hell of a time writing blog posts lately because I’m afraid to even lay claim to my own story. If I say anything about x topic, I think, then this person will think I’m writing about them, even though actually it has nothing to do with them, or maybe it does but that doesn’t mean it’s not an appropriate topic for the blog, but that means I can’t write about that topic, unless I find a way to be very clever so I’m kind of writing about it without writing about it. And three hours later, here I sit with no blog post to show for it. Or I’m bending over backwards to be incredibly vague, even while suspecting that it’s impossible for me to ever be vague enough. And the writing suffers as a result. This also doesn’t work.

Okay, so what does work?

Being authentic works. Being honest works. Speaking up works. Being firm and clear works. Not wanting everyone to like me works. Noticing when other people’s stories are coming strongly into play works. Refusing to take responsibility for other people’s stories works. Laying claim to my own story, yeah, that works too.

This is my story, and I’m going to write about it.

Joining the Dance

Okay, I have a great quote for you guys today. No surprise, I found it on Jonathan Carroll’s Facebook page, which remains a great inspiration.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Wilson Watts

Photo Credit: CEBImagery.com via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CEBImagery.com via Compfight cc

I’ve been thinking about breaking up this quote onto different pieces of paper and posting it around my living room. We shall see, though, because I don’t want my living room to remind me of an inspirational calendar. Well, at least not an overly cheesy inspirational calendar.

Anyway. I am of course right in the thick of a long, extended period of change, and within such periods, there are spikes of bigger change and then those times when you can get a little rest. I’m definitely in the middle of a spike at present. And I’ve been thinking about what I want my life to look like.

I have a few thoughts about creating a life vision, if you will.

First, a life vision will be constantly evolving. That’s in its nature. As we learn new things, as we experience setbacks, as circumstances change, as who we are changes, our life vision will shift and grow to fit the present time. How many times have I thought I wanted a particular thing in my life only to find out once I had it that I didn’t want it after all? Enough times to know this is a thing that happens, that’s for sure. But it can be difficult to allow our vision to change because it’s so easy to get attached to the old way of thinking.

Second, as much as I wish I could think or imagine everything out ahead of time, that is not necessarily the best strategy. Hence the above quote. I am a planner and a thinker, so that’s where my comfort zone lies. But sometimes we have to take a leap and see what happens, and then adapt to it. Sometimes we have to try things out to experience them for ourselves. I feel like this can be especially powerful when something isn’t working. Sometimes when we can loosen up our thinking, we find a completely different solution or direction that wasn’t in the original vision at all.

Third, I’m interested in the inevitable biases that creep into our visions of what our lives could be. To me, an obvious one is that of our family of origin. (Another one is the broader society in which we are raised.) When we’re kids, we learn what is possible by watching our parents and close family groups. That sets our basis for what is “normal.” As adults then, we are constantly challenged to learn from our surroundings and seek out exposure to different people and ideas. We can use these to disrupt our original basis for understanding reality in order to create visions that more truly reflect who we are and what we’d like to see for ourselves.

There are so many ideas in our brains, and we haven’t necessarily had a chance to deeply examine them. What it means to be a certain age. What it means to be a certain gender. How we choose to express ourselves. What goals are worthy of pursuit. What gives life its meaning. How we run our social lives. And lots of smaller stuff, like the proper way to bake cookies and what kind of food is comforting and the amazing sweetness of fluffy poodley little dogs and habits of making lists and what kind of stuff you like to do for fun.

A lot of these ideas are great and useful and practical and work really well. But sometimes they don’t all work so well. And sometimes even when they do work well, they act as barriers between ourselves and other people with different biases. Sometimes they even work as ways of shutting down empathy. And sometimes they can keep our life visions more limited than they’d otherwise have to be.

So right now I’m doing my best to put at least part of my inner planner on the back burner and enjoy plunging into the change. I don’t know exactly what will happen next, but then, right now, that’s the entire point.

Words to Live By

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and loss and inspiration and kindness.

How are you going to tie all of those ideas together in an essay, Amy? Yeah, I’m not really sure either. But I am going to try.

When I first checked my phone on Tuesday morning, I learned that fantasy writer Graham Joyce had died. I felt sad. Sad because many of my friends are grieving the loss of someone important to them. Sad because the one time I met Graham, he had been kind and generous to me.

Sad because then I thought about Jay, and I miss him. I don’t talk about it much. I’m not sure there’s very much to say. The sadness is here, inside of me. That’s all.

We try so hard to distract ourselves, and others, from the reality of this sadness. We want so badly to fix, to take away pain, whether it’s our own pain or somebody else’s. Distraction, cheering up, intellectual discussions about philosophical implications.

But at some point we have to stop all of that and just sit. Sit with sadness. Sit with whatever emotions there are. Turn off the fixer, because there is no fixing death. There is no fixing loss. There is no fixing of so many things.

Sometimes there is someone who is willing to sit with us so we will not be alone. But we are not always so lucky. And sometimes being alone makes it easier. Either way, at some point, the sitting must occur.

Graham Joyce’s final blog post is being widely quoted because it is brilliant. This is my favorite part:

“Actually I know what the dragonfly said.  It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.

And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?”

Cherish. There is so much that is beautiful and good in the world, and it deserves the attention. It is so easy to miss seeing it; it’s so easy for it to be drowned out by the ugly and the ignorant and the damaging. But the good still matters; it keeps us going.

Inspire. We all need a hand up from time to time, or a new idea, or a fresh way of seeing. We help each other to be creative and kind and informed and engaged. We help each other to be better than we could be on our own.

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

I’m reminded of another quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s from E. Lockhart’s novel We Were Liars: “Be a little kinder than you have to.”

That’s it. Be a little kinder. I hear these words in my head several times a week. They help me get out of my head when I’m about to stand up for myself or deliver bad news. They help me get past the empathy response that encourages me NOT to stand up for myself, because they give me a guide for how to behave that honors that empathy while also taking care of myself. They remind me that I can be clear and firm and honest without being unnecessarily cruel.

And they encourage me to a little kinder to myself as well.

Cherish, inspire, and be a little kinder when you can. Yes. That is what I’d like to spend my life doing.

Writing through Empathy

“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

Nikki Giovanni

When I was in my twenties, before I was taking writing particularly seriously (I was still solidly in the musician phase of my existence), I wanted to write a book fictionalizing my experiences during my year living abroad in London. It’s possible my experiences were interesting enough to warrant such a thing. Maybe. Or not.

But one problem that niggled at the back of mind, even then, was the pesky little question: what novel would I write next? At the time, I had no other ideas, a proposition that blows my mind since I’m now swimming with ideas. But all I had to go on was my own experience.

I feel like there’s this autobiographical stage that many writers go through around when they’re starting out. But I agree with Nikki Giovanni: there may be one novel firmly based in personal experience, possibly even a few, but ultimately that well is limited.

Empathy, on the other hand, can be an infinite resource from which to draw. Empathy allows us to see other perspectives and imagine reactions to different situations.  And when we consider those cases of outstanding writers with a very limited life experience–Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters spring to mind as the usual examples–we can posit that these writers possessed a very well-developed sense of empathy that allowed them both to glean as much as possible from the experiences they did have and to write so far beyond that experience.

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

However, I do think empathy can be developed through experience. This can include experiences of the imagination, whether that be solely our own imaginations set loose or a collaboration with creators as we read novels, see plays, or watch movies and TV series. It can include our own experience navigating through the world. And it can include the information we come across that informs our understanding of how the world works.

The key, then, is to avoid writing solely through experience, but instead to use experience as a practice ground for developing the empathy that can potentially last through an entire career.

Travel as Catalyst

I was approached by a few people who read my last blog post and were concerned that bad things had happened to me on my vacation.

On the contrary, friends. On the contrary. I had an amazing trip.

The plan was as follows: to begin in East London at WorldCon, to move to central London to enjoy a week of blissful London time, and then to end with a few days in southeast Wales. This turned out to be an excellent plan.

I had an emotionally challenging summer. Any time your best inspirational words are “things get worse before they get better,” you know things aren’t going so great at that particular moment, however optimistic you may feel about the future. My hope was that my vacation would give me a chance to clear my head, gain perspective, and get some emotional rest. And it certainly succeeded at giving me all these things.

For me, travel, whether it is recreational or to a convention or a combination of both, takes me outside of my familiar, everyday world. I see people I normally wouldn’t see, I have conversations I normally wouldn’t have, I learn about things I wouldn’t normally learn about, I spend my time differently. Not only does this refill the creative wells, but it also serves in a larger sense as a reminder of what is possible.

I think this is always valuable, but when you are having a difficult time, it becomes even more so because it shows you potential ways forward. It encourages movement instead of paralysis. It encourages analysis with an eye toward positive change instead of hopelessness. It gives new context to old problems.

It allows space to imagine a better world. Or at least a healthier life.

Why is this important? Because you can’t move closer to that life unless you can see enough to know what direction to take. It’s difficult to make choices based on your priorities until you are very clear on what those priorities are. And sometimes they need to be reaffirmed several times before they become truly internalized.

The other helpful ingredient for imagining a healthier life is hope. And WorldCon delivered big time on this one. I cried at the Hugo ceremony. Okay, I always cry at the Hugo ceremony, but this time was different. Kameron Hurley and her double win for Fan Writer and for her brilliant essay “We Have Always Fought” meant a lot to me. This recognition from my community for such important work gave me hope. The respect and support of my colleagues gave me hope. The steps forward I had been making in recent months, however difficult, began to give me hope too.

So yes, it was a wonderful vacation indeed. And I’m looking forward to what’s coming next.

At the Hugos.

At the Hugos.

In Which I Take a Stand

I imagine a better world for myself.

I imagine a world in which sexual harassment is not a common reality, in which consent matters and communication matters and female bodies aren’t so objectified that it becomes easy to forget there’s a person here in this body. In which harassment is strictly not allowed instead of being given a pass or labeled a misunderstanding. In which no always means no and nobody is trying to pretend that isn’t actually true so they can feel better about the horrible way they have treated other people.

I imagine a world in which people don’t tell me what to do unprompted, and people don’t explain things to me that I already know, and people don’t tell me incorrect information about things about which I already know and then won’t listen when I gently question this false information. A world in which I am not shut down when I try to express my opinion or reservations.

I imagine a world in which there are more choices for me than just the Virgin and the Whore. In which I am not shamed for having a body, for how I dress, for the existence of sexuality. In which I am not pressured, repeatedly, to do things I am not comfortable doing. In which vulnerability is not a weakness to be exploited. In which the word “tease” is never used as a weapon. In which I don’t have to worry about the possibility of being physically forced.

I imagine a world in which instead of being told I’m too emotional, my feelings matter. In which the boundaries I set are actually taken seriously. In which people take responsibility for their bad behavior instead of expecting me to be run over by a bus on their behalf. In which there isn’t an expectation that we’ll all just pretend that didn’t happen. In which my discomfort with bad behavior is met with neither anger nor denial. In which people know that empathy doesn’t mean just caring about someone but involves understanding their perspective and feeling compassion on their behalf.

I imagine a world in which people don’t feel entitled to me, to my body, to my time, to my energy. In which basic decency doesn’t expect a reward. In which my choices are celebrated instead of constrained. In which people don’t use manipulation tactics to attempt to control me. In which instead we are gifts to each other, freely given but not taken for granted.

I imagine a world in which I am surrounded by amazing and supportive people. In which none of us are perfect but all of us are willing to own the issues that are ours. In which we’ve learned how to listen, and how to apologize, and how to respect, regardless of gender or color or class or orientation.

And then I imagine myself. I imagine setting boundaries, standing up for myself, and rejecting the pervasive message that I do not matter. I imagine treating myself with the kindness and respect I used to reserve for others. I imagine allowing others to experience the consequences of their behavior without shouldering any of their responsibility. I imagine shedding shame like a skin I’ve outgrown.

Yes. I can be that woman.

Maybe I already am.

20140823_140629

I’m getting ready to go on vacation, and it hasn’t been the most uplifting time around here, and then just as I sat to write this, the news of Robin Williams’s suicide broke.

I feel like we need something inspiring on the blog today, something to counterbalance the mud pit of suck.

#

I haven’t been very inspired lately. Mostly I’ve been bone-weary, and that’s when the doubts began to pop up and frolic in my landscape of discouragement. They didn’t help my mood any. I felt pretty horrible until I remembered something.

Sometimes things get worse before they get better.

I don’t know if you all are going to find that very inspiring, but it helped me a lot last week, so it’s what I’ve got for you.

Some of you will remember that I had my birthday epiphany about a month and a half ago. I wasn’t sure at the time what was going to happen with it, or if it would even stick.

Well, it stuck.

And it has been both a difficult and an amazing thing. In the long term, I’m pretty sure it will be mostly amazing. But in the short term, it has been mostly difficult. At the threat of such a large change in perspective, all my deepest fears have been coming out to play and fight for their continued existence, and they are as big and as scary as they’ve ever been. Meanwhile, I am already seeing myself and my life differently, and making different choices as a result, but I haven’t yet developed the emotional muscle and skills to deal with these choices with anything resembling ease.

So yes. In some ways things have gotten worse. But I can see how they are going to be better. I can see the people-pleasing behavior beginning to recede as I make real progress in setting firm boundaries. I can hear the desperation in the loudness of my self-critical thoughts. I can appreciate the generous and heartfelt support of the friends I’ve reached out to in the last few weeks. Some of them are newer friends or don’t know me as well, and it certainly felt like they could have easily dismissed my overtures and requests for support. But they didn’t. They were there for me, and even while I was in the middle of disappointing and discouraging circumstances, these people helped rebuild my hope in what my future could look like.

So if I can leave you with one more inspiring thought, it is this: You matter. Your choices matter. You reaching out to others and being there for others when they reach out, that matters. Your kindness matters.

It has certainly mattered to me.

Photo Credit: Thorsten Becker via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thorsten Becker via Compfight cc

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