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Posts Tagged ‘courage’

I was getting ready for bed on Monday night, flossing and brushing my teeth, when suddenly I looked in the mirror. I stared at my face, and I said, “Wait a second. Amy, what are you doing?”

And I blinked and looked myself in the eye, and several layers of exhaustion and doubt and fear and overwhelm sloughed off, and I said, “Oh yeah. Right, then. Back on track.”

Because in that moment, I remembered who I am.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: what is essential to identity, of what layers it is comprised, how malleable it is, why some people are able to hold onto some core of who they are throughout their lives while others are not.

And I realized that an essential part of change, for me, is re-crafting personal identity. External circumstances can and do change, sometimes because of a deliberate decision we’ve made and sometimes not. Sometimes our lives change because of other people’s decisions, or because of the accumulation of lots of tiny decisions we’ve made mostly unawares, or because of pure happenstance.

But I think the change that matters most, or certainly that is the most interesting to me personally, is the change of self. And while identity can change based on external events, it certainly doesn’t always do so. And sometimes external circumstances can change from the inside out, based on changes of the self.

And then there’s the common temporary changes, such as most New Year’s resolutions, that end in backslides and no long-term change whatsoever.

One of the ways to hold onto change, then, is to craft that change into your personal identity, into how you see yourself, into who you are. For example, I am a person who is confident in her abilities. Or, I am person who cares about eating healthily. Or, I am a person who is kind to others. Or, I am a person who goes out of his way to be generous.

We can incorporate these beliefs into our identities through repeatedly engaging in thought patterns and behaviors that support them. If I go dancing one to three times a week for six months, then it is easy enough to include “I am a dancer” in my self-identity. If I am steadily working on writing projects, then “I am a writer” comes easily as well.

And the same holds true of traits. For example, I decided I wanted to be more confident. So I told myself over and over again that I loved myself, even though it felt like one of the stupidest things ever. And I gave myself pep talks. And I encouraged myself to stand with my hands behind my back in a confident pose, especially when I felt the most nervous. And I made the deliberate choice to surround myself with people who boosted my confidence. And I experimented with acting confidently even when I didn’t feel that way to see what happened. And I did all these things for years. Literally.

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The test comes in times of stress. Now, invariably when I am faced with a challenge, I think to myself, “Wait. What would I do now in this situation? I have been practicing for this!”

So I’ve been tested these last few stressful weeks. And because I’ve practiced so much, I was pretty pleased with how I was doing. But even so, that much deliberate action during stress was taking its toll, in that I was getting more. and. more. tired. And as I got more tired, my confidence was decreasing. And doing the things I wanted to do and reacting the way I wanted to react was getting more and more difficult. And I was feeling more and more pull from my old identity and from old ways of thinking.

Until that moment at the mirror. Because what I felt wasn’t disappointment or anger or fear. It was confusion.

Wait a second, I thought. This isn’t who I am. I am perfectly capable of coming up with good plans and following through on them. I don’t have to feel threatened; I know I’m enough. I don’t have to feel frightened because I know I can see this through for myself. I can write this fucking book. I can take this fucking risk. I can live this fucking life.

Once you’ve built your personal identity to be strong and true, sometimes all it takes is one moment to remember who you’ve become.

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I care very deeply about documenting the process of change.

Whenever I think about change, I think about the montage scene. Actually, I think of one specific montage scene: the one in Dirty Dancing when Jennifer Grey learns, through much trial and error, how to ballroom dance well enough to fill in for a professional. That is my quintessential montage scene.

But as useful as the montage scene is, it fails on some fundamental level to reflect the reality of change: that it is slow, and it is hard, and it is filled with doubt and confusion and setbacks, and it hurts. If you’re learning how to dance, it really hurts. Your thighs hurt, and your calves hurt, and your low back hurts because your posture kind of sucks, and your weak ankle aches, and the morning after your first time dancing, you can barely crawl out of bed, it hurts so bad.

The montage scene doesn’t really show the pain, and it doesn’t really show the duration, either. Change takes so much time. Even once you get it, or at least think you do, you often have to realize it all over again a month later, or six months later, or two years later. And each time, there’s this “Aha” moment, and each time it feels important, and each time you move forward, and each time there is still further forward that you could go.

Which is to say, I feel incredibly proud of the personal change I’ve been able to accomplish, symbolized by the tweet Ferrett made back in February. I am proud of it the way I’m proud I started a business. I’m proud of it the way I imagine I’ll be proud when my first novel hits the shelves someday. It is a major accomplishment for me.

And yet. There is still further forward for me to go. I am not magically finished, not suddenly foolproof at the art of not giving a fuck. No, what has happened is that I’ve made visible progress, and that is awesome. Meanwhile the work continues.

Last week I talked about feeling tired in dating. And a lot of that fatigue is tied up, for me, in the act of presentation. Which is all tied in to me still being invested in things of which I’d rather let go. I’ve got this act down. I am tactful, I am diplomatic, I can listen to a subject for half an hour without expressing an actual opinion. If I sense any discomfort in the other person, I act instantly to defuse it. I smooth, I smile, I charm, and I would certainly never admit to what I’m saying in this paragraph right now. Except maybe as a little joke that would probably fly under the radar.

Here’s the thing, you guys. I have taught myself over this last three years to rein this set of skills back when I’m with my trusted friends. I am so much more likely now to tell my friends how I really feel, what I really think. But when I am nervous or uncomfortable or, I don’t know, dating, it is so easy to turn it all back on without even thinking about it.

It feels easier. It isn’t though. Over time, it becomes exhausting. It feels heavy. It keeps me awake at night.

It doesn’t work.

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And it’s not even real. That’s not how I feel anymore. I don’t want a relationship that begins in such a lopsided way. I don’t feel like I need to apologize for who I am or what I like or what has happened in the past. I don’t even feel bad about the boundaries I’ve needed to set. If people don’t want to like me for those things, that’s their prerogative. I don’t need to convince them otherwise. I just want to be me.

And I can. How beautiful is that?

So I was on the phone with this guy who was asking me on a date. And we were chatting because we hardly know each other. And I chose not to flip that stupid switch. And at one point he said, “It’s funny that I called to ask you on a date and now here we are chatting about our divorces.”

And I said, “Well, you know, I’m trying something new. I’ve decided to do my best to be straightforward and open about things. How do you think it’s going so far?”

It was a good conversation. And you know what? I wasn’t exhausted at the end.

This here is another piece of change, clicking into place.

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Last week I wrote about this gem of an article on differences between amateurs and professionals. But I left my favorite item on Bob Lefsetz’s list for today. If I were compiling a list of things about life I wish I’d known as soon as freaking possible, this would go near the top.

Amateurs, he says, believe what people say. Professionals believe what people do.

Which is to say, talking about something is all fine and good, but if subsequent actions don’t line up with the words, it’s generally the actions that point to the deeper truth about what’s going on. This is true not just in professional life, but across the board.

I suffer from a vein of serious gullibility, crossed with a strong desire to believe the best of people, so I still need to remind myself of this lesson. Noble intentions are wonderful to possess, but until we follow through on them, they remain intangible. Similarly, words matter, but if they aren’t backed up with fact, action, or experience, they remain hollow. And words can create false expectations about what will happen in the future.

I do think it takes a certain self awareness and ability to adjust to line up words with actions. And words by their nature sometimes lack the required precision. Which is why the actions themselves are so important. They cut through the potential for misunderstanding. They also help us better understand ourselves and what we care about.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my priorities and then developing plans around them because I don’t want to be a person who regularly expresses desires but then does nothing to make any of them happen. And it is so easy to be that person. It’s not as interesting to be that person, but it does, in my experience, take a lot less effort.

It also takes less courage. Because acting on words makes them real, and it also makes the possibility of failure or success real. And both failure and success can be terrifying because they cause change and require adjustment. As long as we don’t act, we can hold on to our fantasies about what could be true.

In writing, this manifests as the person who professes to want to write or want to build a career as a writer, but who doesn’t write or pursue this seriously. I’m not talking about people going through rough patches–times when life ruthlessly intervenes or we have to take some time to work out how to deal with a particular demon. But ultimately a writer needs to figure out a process that works, a way to actually write and produce, and ideally a way to write that doesn’t solely depend on the occasional burst of inspiration.

Saying we want to be writers or we wish we could be writers is certainly not uncommon, but it is the actions we take in pursuit of this goal that demonstrate how committed and serious we are. And professionals can tell the difference a mile away. This is, I believe, one reason why going to Clarion and other such workshops can be such a door-opener; spending the time and resources on a residential workshop shows a certain level of commitment that professionals respect.

What we do–the actions we take-becomes a large part of who we are.

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On Tuesday night Jonathan Carroll had a quotation on his Facebook that resonated with me:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

There are different kinds of events that call for courage. There is the desire to make change, of course, which I’ve talked about a fair amount in the past. There is the question of how we face and handle adversity. There is the desire to try something new. And there is the willingness to go back and do the same scary thing again and again, even if it doesn’t get all that much easier.

I think when we choose to be artists–whatever that means to you–we are, in a sense, choosing to face fear again and again. There might be times when we aren’t seeking change, when we’ve got the adversity of life under control, when we’re living in a comfortable groove of existence. But if we’re actively working as artists, we’re constantly pushing, striving, experimenting, and revealing ourselves to others.

I can see it getting easier with time and practice, but I can’t imagine it ever being easy.

I have three main projects I’m working on right now: I’m querying my completed novel to agents, I’m in the middle of writing a novel rough draft, and I’m planning a future project that involves experimental elements. Each of these projects involve artistic courage.

-Querying puts me straight in the path of the rejection of my work, and while most of the time I shrug it off fairly easily, occasionally a rejection will sting.

-The rough draft is not coming together like I’d hoped it would, so writing it has become quite the struggle. I also deliberately chose to work on a concept that I knew depended on a writing ability in which I lack confidence and feel fairly weak.

-The new project is something new and experimental, and I’m not sure if I’m going to do it yet. But if I do, I’ll be trying all kinds of new things, and because of this, the entire project has a higher likelihood than many of tanking. It takes courage even to consider doing it.

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Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

And then there’s the drive as an artist to go deeper, to explore dark corners, to shine a light on truths that are hard and uncomfortable and scary. There is the call to show vulnerability in our work. All of this requires so much courage.

So I would say not only do our own lives expand or contract in relation to the courage we can bring to bear, but our artistic work does the same.

What do you have the courage to see? What do you have the courage to feel? What do you have the courage to communicate?

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This summer I went to a workshop about dealing with fear, and I left it feeling disappointed. The teachers didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already known. They kept using examples that either weren’t really about fear or that were about being afraid of public speaking. So it wasn’t a talk geared for me.

Apparently fear of public speaking is the second most common fear in the United States. But to me, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I get nervous ahead of time, and I over-prepare, and I don’t always do a good job with it. But it’s so much better than having to sing operatic arias in a foreign language I don’t actually speak that contain high notes I can’t actually hit from memory and then have my performance critiqued in front of a group of fellow singers. That’s what I spent my college years doing. Which was still better than actual auditions.

So one way to manage fear is to do something a lot harder, and then easier things might not seem so bad. Another way is to do whatever you’re afraid to do A LOT. So basically you’re practicing your way out of fear.

But really I was disappointed in the talk because there is no easy answer. Whether you’re afraid of speaking in public or dying, uncertainty or being treated poorly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And I wish there was. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion. It can both hold us back and make things a lot more miserable even as we trudge forward. It can warp the nature of reality itself, making things that might be true seem like they are actually true. And it can make us physically ill in a variety of ways.

I have spent a lot of time being afraid. And ultimately it’s always the same thing that pushes me through.

Belief.

I remember once as a student, I was walking towards the music building where I had an audition. I think I was sick (I was almost always sick), and I already knew I wasn’t going to get the part. I thought to myself, Why are you even bothering? Why don’t you just go home? Why are you doing this to yourself?

But the answer was clear. I had decided to do this. I believed this was what I should be doing, even though I felt awful and I was really nervous and I knew I wouldn’t get the part. I had a vision of what I wanted my life to be, and this crappy audition experience was a part of that. So I went, and I did the audition, and I didn’t get the part, and I moved on.

Belief is still what gets me through fear. I fix my eyes on my idea of the future, and I clench my jaw, and I do what needs to be done to give myself a chance of getting there. The fear is still there, making things harder, making me pause and ask myself why I am putting myself through such difficulty. But I believe in my vision, and I hold onto that belief as if my life depends on it.

So I guess if I were to give a workshop on overcoming fear, I’d explore how to create a vision strong enough to withstand whatever fear can throw at us. I’d look for some exercises to promote self esteem, because in order to believe in a vision, I think we also have to believe in ourselves. And I’d talk about how to take care of ourselves and handle rejection and disappointment and failure and other obstacles in a resilient way that allows us to keep moving forward.

How do you overcome fear?

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I really like the metaphor of the phoenix for transformation.

I remember learning about metamorphosis in grade school, and being excited I could remember how to spell it. (I had a happy gift for spelling.) The caterpillar stuffs its little self as full as can be, and then it spins a warm, comfy cocoon. I imagined it sleeping inside, engaged in curious caterpillar dreams, until one day it would wake up and break free, transformed. It sounded so easy.

That’s why I like the phoenix. The phoenix doesn’t have it easy at all. When it’s time for the phoenix to change, it literally bursts into flames. Being burnt to ash has to be excruciating. And there might very well be some uncertainty involved as well, because what if it doesn’t work this time? What if the phoenix does not become reborn? And even if it does, what if it’s different in some critical and upsetting way? What if it is no longer its self? What if it’s lost something valuable in the process of being reborn?

Photo Credit: Ryan McCurdy via Compfight cc

So often, that’s the reality of transformation. We don’t always know exactly what the end result will be. When I sit down to revise a manuscript, I often have the troubling thought, “What if I end up making it worse instead of better?” When I set out to change myself, I can only guess at the ripples that are going to spread out from that change. And those ripples, once they start moving, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control. Who knows where they’ll travel or how fast they’ll spread?

What we can know is the process will hurt. It will be uncomfortable. Bursting into flames, even if it’s only metaphorical, is clearly not the easiest path available to us. Excising large portions of a manuscript that represent hours upon hours of effort can be nausea-inducing even while it’s liberating. Any large change is going to require an adjustment period when nothing feels quite as it should. When you rip off the band aid, you take some skin and hair along with it. When you fling yourself into the world newly altered, you flail and whack one or more of your limbs against obstructions that you hoped to avoid or didn’t even know were there.

But the idea of the phoenix also encompasses hope. The phoenix is reborn. It returns renewed and refreshed, brighter and fiercer. It is a thing of beauty and fascination. Through the pain of the fire, the old is burned away, leaving space for something new and wonderful.

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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.

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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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