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Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

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.

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A sex columnist and a children’s book writer went out on a first date. The conversation flowed, the chemistry was palpable…but ultimately the children’s book writer decided there couldn’t be a second date. He was afraid his dating a sex columnist wouldn’t work for his career. True story.

I thought of this story again when I read Penelope Trunk’s recent post about being honest about who you are at work, in the context of Jason Collins’ coming out story in Sports Illustrated: “The more you hide, the harder it is to find a job that’s right for you.”

I think a lot about the post I wrote about the distinctions of public, personal, and private, especially when I’m talking to people about social media strategy. Because in order to be genuine, in order to connect with people in a deeper way, it’s often necessary to share some of the personal. But figuring out what’s personal and what’s private isn’t easy. And when the career you love and your private life (or alternate for-money career, as is the case for many artists) don’t quite mesh together, it’s hard to reconcile. Hence the children’s book writer making the tough decision not to date a woman in whom he was interested in order to avoid a later dilemma.

Our society is in the middle of a shift involving the availability of information and the level of connectedness between us. I met a book editor last month who complained about how often his writer Facebook friends posted about their politics and how much this bothered him. A decade ago, this wasn’t an issue. It’s so much easier to avoid talking much politics when you’re going out for drinks with your editor than it is to avoid posting about anything remotely politically every day. And even if you talked about politics over those drinks, that conversation has a different contextual place for both you and the editor than it does in a social media feed.

So we find ourselves wrestling with two related problems: having less control overall over the information the world can access about us, and having more of a platform from which to release our own information about ourselves, which means we have to decide what to say (and what not to say). In addition, we have to deal with the implications of all this information floating around (or the potential of it to be released) to our careers, to our loved ones, to our complicated social landscapes, and in terms of ethics.

Our lives as open books. Photo Credit: Honou via Compfight cc

These issues are exacerbated for artists because of our society’s collective difficulty in considering works of art as something apart from their creators. This is when we begin to see parents objecting to a children’s book because its author is not seen to be of sufficient moral character. I also know people who don’t want to go see the Ender’s Game movie this fall not because they object to any of the material they think they’ll see but because they don’t want to give money to Orson Scott Card. Certainly as content consumers we have every right to decide what art we will and won’t consume, but it is interesting watching the trends towards making that decision based on the creator instead of the work. Why is this change taking place? Because more information about these artists is generally available (both from themselves and from outside sources).

As privacy becomes less possible and we have less control over accessible personal information, it will become increasingly important to use our platforms to tell our own stories about ourselves. As Justine Musk says, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else tells it for you.”

It is going to become harder and harder to hide. Sometimes we might be able to make decisions like that children’s book writer and keep things simpler for ourselves. But other times, what’s at stake will be too important. And perhaps it’s at that point when having the platform and ability to communicate in your own way becomes the most important.

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“There’s always been a bit of the Princess archetype in you,” she said. (And she’s totally right; there always has.) “And I thought you had manifested that for yourself, that your life was settled and you had gotten your happily ever after. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t see you.”

In her talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown says that the word courage comes from the word coeur, French for heart. What is courage? She says it is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart: in other words, allowing yourself to be seen, choosing the authentic. It takes courage to tell our stories. It takes courage to be honest and open. And it takes courage to infuse our artistic work with truth.

Coeur.
Photo Credit: Miriam Cardoso de Souza via Compfight cc

She also mentions the importance of having the courage to be imperfect. And let me tell you something about the Princess archetype. It’s not all bad: it includes a healthy dose of positivity, some chirping birds, romance and adventure. But it also contains no space for imperfection. The Princess in the fairy tales is perfection in essence: she is beautiful and charming, she is talented, she can sing and play music and dance and speak twenty languages, she always knows what to say, she has a sweet disposition, and she never ever feels angry or tired or upset. She can only feel fear when she is in danger as a plot device to allow the prince/knight/fool to rescue her, self-actualize, and win her as a prize. And she is always brave and smiling.

Being the Princess means not being seen for yourself.

I have been the Princess. I have tried to be perfect in every possible way. I have worked to be attractive and charming and to always set people at ease and know the right thing to say.  Whenever I have made a mistake, it has meant falling short of impossible standards. I have tried to please everyone and hate admitting that I need anything at all.

And yet, it has only been through surrendering the Princess archetype that I could begin creating the life that I want. It has only been through searching for people who don’t need me to be that Princess that I could finally be me, with everything that encompasses. It has only been through finding my coeur to begin to tell my story that I could create authentic connections with other people. Being able to see other people and being seen yourself, as it turns out, go hand in hand.

When I think of all those years I was trapped in the tower of Princess-hood, I feel very sad. Now that I’ve rescued myself, I try not to be perfect with appropriate imperfection. I don’t always smile. I am not always brave. I sometimes put my own needs first, and I am allowed to ask for things. There is space for me to have emotions. The world doesn’t end when I can’t always be strong.

It feels very strange to not be a Princess. But also very right.

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A couple of weeks ago I watched a TED talk by Brene Brown entitled “The Power of Vulnerability.” It’s twenty minutes long, but I highly recommend watching it when you get the chance. Brene Brown is a researcher who spent years studying vulnerability, shame, and human connection, and she shares valuable insights from her work and how it has affected her own life.

I’ve been seeing a common theme coming up this year, and it comes up again in this talk: that connection and well-being come from the inside, that they arise from our own beliefs and attitudes about ourselves.

I saw it in James Altucher’s post about Kamal Ravikant, who was desperately ill and miserable until he turned things around for himself and ended up writing a short book about the experience. His secret? He told himself that he loved himself a billion and one times.

I saw it in the reading I was doing about attachment styles. Apparently people with a healthy attachment style tend to assume that their needs will be met. And guess what? More often than not, their needs are met, one way or another. Part of this is probably because they are asking for what they need, and part of it is because they are attracting other people who are okay meeting some of these needs. The fact that they assume their needs are okay and will be met shows a greater sense of self worth.

And now here is Brene Brown, telling us that the one thing separating those people who experience a lot of love and belonging in their lives from those who do not is a sense of worthiness. When we believe that we are worthy of love and connection, when we believe that we are enough just as we are, then we can embrace our vulnerability, find our authenticity, and achieve greater connection.

And in her list of traits that these “heart whole” people have in common, she mentions them having compassion for themselves, because otherwise they are unable to have compassion for other people. This idea relates back to the Nice vs. Kind trap and one of the reasons being a people pleaser ultimately doesn’t work out so well.

At the end of last year, I wrote a post called “You are Worth It,” giving this message in yet another way.

This idea of worthiness circles back around on itself in a feedback loop. Take the recent World Fantasy Convention as an example. I entered into the convention feeling comfortable and like I belonged. Because of that, I was more relaxed, having a better time, and able to be very much Amy. So I could connect more easily with both people I knew and people I was meeting. Then people started joking that I knew everyone (not true, but thank you!), which made me feel like I belonged even more, and so made me connect more. Rinse and repeat.

Very Much Amy

The key point, though, is that the nifty cycle I described started with me. It began with me taking my career seriously and feeling like I belonged in a group of professionals. It began with me taking myself seriously, as a person worthy of respect. Without that, the cycle wouldn’t have had a chance to feed back on itself.

We talk a lot about authenticity: to connect with each other, and in a professional context, to connect with readers. This authenticity comes from the courage to be vulnerable. And make no mistake, it does take courage; this blog has taught me that. And here we find another loop: courage builds feelings of worthiness, and a feeling of self worth increases our courage. 

Let’s be brave together.

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“I aspire to eccentricity,” I said recently at a party. “By the time I reach my sixties, I want to claim it completely. I want to be a full-blown eccentric.”

It takes a special kind of strength to claim our eccentricity, to go against social norms and expectations, to wave the weird flag. There’s a subculture in the US, consisting of artistic types, unconventional types, adventurous types, and free spirits, who consider the statement “You’re weird” to be one of the highest compliments. It’s a reclamation of words that cut to the bone on the elementary school playground.

What’s interesting about being a free spirit, or a rebel, or any of these other labels, is that there isn’t one way to do it. We talked a couple of years ago about Hollywood’s depictions of free spirits as spacy, often irresponsible, Bohemian, manic pixie dream girls. But allowing ourselves to fit into these pre-constructed molds is an inherent act of conformity. In order to truly be a free spirit, to claim that eccentricity within, we do ourselves a disservice if we follow the map society hands us. “Here’s what you’re supposed to be if you’re a free spirit.” Ha! When the whole point is to decide for yourself.

We are held back by these maps, by these preconceptions. The well-honed ability of human beings to practice self-deception will never cease to amaze me. I am so good at it, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It is only when these maps, these boundaries, and these assumptions are challenged that we can begin to truly cultivate ourselves, eccentricities and all. Otherwise, not only do we limit the choices in our stories to a much more narrow band than necessary, but we fail to know ourselves.

Photo by H Koppdelaney

If we look at what lurks underneath this disconnect, we’ll often find fear. Fear of being different. Fear of not being loved. Fear of change. Fear of loss of safety. Fear of having to confront hard truths, of being stuck into the red hot forge until we become malleable enough to be re-shaped and see more clearly.

In order to know ourselves, in order to discover what shape our eccentricities will take, we have to walk into the fear. We have to gently nudge ourselves forward, and we have to experience the pain that comes with seeing that reality does not always conform with our expectations, our beliefs, and our desires. Claiming eccentricity fully means spending our lives exploring, both what it means to be us and how that intersects with the rest of the world. It means ignoring that innate desire to mirror what and who is around us. It means thinking instead of automatically agreeing. It means creating a ripple of discomfort around ourselves, and perhaps learning to defuse it somewhat with humor, charisma, and tact (and sometimes choosing purposefully to let the discomfort stand). It means choosing how we express ourselves.

What we find when we strip ourselves down, layer by layer, is true eccentricity. A lot of people call this authenticity. I think maybe it’s the same thing, only authenticity sounds more noble. It’s simultaneously a loss of innocence and a rebirth of innocence. Nothing is the way it seemed–not society, not the people we know, not even ourselves. (Get stuck here and you achieve bitterness, disillusionment, cynicism.)

Beyond it, though, lies the innocence of being connected to ourselves in the moment. The innocence of “I am.” The innocence of the joy that is generated by living in harmony with who we are.

I made a joke at a party. But this is really what I meant. There’s something a little eccentric about that, don’t you think?

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We don’t always live in a way that’s consistent with the things we know to be true.

I wrote this sentence on Monday when I was writing Tuesday’s blog post about making yourself a priority. It was the best sentence I wrote that day, but it didn’t fit the post, so I set it aside to use today instead. Take a minute and think about it.

We don’t always live in a way that’s consistent with the things we know to be true.

There are all kinds of reasons for this, of course. Maybe we’re being socially pressured to conform or live in a certain way. Maybe the truth is too painful to deal with. Maybe the truth calls into question our core beliefs, values, and what we hold dear. Maybe it has become so obscured we’re not even sure what it is. Maybe we’ve decided to bury the truth because it seemed necessary or because we were trying to be kind or because that was the only way we could see to move forward.

Life is messy, and sometimes truth and reality become misaligned.

I offer no judgments here. We’ve all done this, we’ll all probably do it again, and perhaps we’re doing it right now. We do it because we receive some kind of value in return. Something that we might really need.

But such a disconnect can also become malignant. It can worm its way inside of you, insatiable and bold, and it can hollow you out into an echoing emptiness. It can silence your voice. It can dull your vision. It can leave you in a dizzying state of confusion.

There is power to be found in the place where truth and reality intersect. The kind of power that creatives tap into to create the art that grabs you by the shoulders, kicks you in the gut, and never lets go. The kind of power for you as an individual to use to create a life story filled with meaning. It is not always a comfortable place, this intersection, but it is healing and challenging and ultimately uplifting.

This meeting place, where you live your truth, is where you can be the most authentic you. That you may not always be perfect or nice or happy or popular or responsible.

But that you is so blindingly beautiful all the same.

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Last week when I was schmoozing away at the SCBWI conference, I told my friend how much I love my blog. “I don’t know if it builds my audience or will help my career in any tangible way,” I said (paraphrasing alert!), “but I don’t really care. I love writing for my blog. It’s an important part of my life as a writer.”

My friend responded that she hardly ever heard those sentiments. The conversation moved on, but what I think she meant was that so many people don’t like to blog. They complain about blogging. They wonder if they can get away without blogging. Blogging is a duty, another item on the to-do list.

I don’t think it’s worth it. I read a lot of blogs, and I can tell which bloggers love it. It shines through in their posts. I begin to feel like I know them, even though I’ve never met most of them. They are often so passionate about blogging that they can’t help talking about it every so often, just like I’m doing right now. Their blogs ring with passion, with thought, and with genuine interest in their readers. These are the blogs I miss when I’m away from the internet.

I question whether that sort of commitment can be faked. I’ve been hearing a lot in the past year about the craving we as a society have right now for authenticity, to the point that it has become something of a buzz word among certain circles. But jargon or no, I think it’s relevant to the conversation. We can tell when someone cares deeply about what they’re saying or doing, and their authenticity draws us in.

We can talk about how much we love blogging all we want, but it is our actions that show  whether we’re being genuine. Do we post regularly or do we tend to find excuses to avoid it? Do we write about subjects that we obviously care deeply about? Do we engage in the comment section with thoughtful discussion? Do we approach the writing of a blog post as though it is one of the most important things we could be doing right now?

For those who don’t enjoy blogging, there are plenty of other ways to engage with others. Happily we live in a time rife with choices: Twitter, Facebook (and Facebook pages), Google+, podcasts, Goodreads, etc. If there’s one of these platforms that we connect with better than the others, that ease will reflect itself in our interactions.

I hate the thought of the dutiful yet miserable blogger. Of course, even the most passionate blogger will have his off days or her moments when the words just don’t flow. Sometimes I’d prefer to mess around on the internet instead of writing the next essay, or ideas fail me and I don’t know what to write about. But ultimately I’m working out of a sense of love, not duty. I remember how much blogging gives to me and I push through the laziness and the lack of inspiration.

I think we find authenticity when we do what we love.

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