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Posts Tagged ‘priorities’

I read some writing advice recently that I think is useful both for writers, and for the people who would like to understand what our lives are like a bit more clearly:

“Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first 10 years. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.”

–ANDRE DUBUS

This is so very true. Nobody cares deeply about my writing except me. Which is why I can be kind of a hard-ass when it comes to my schedule. And why I care so very much about my priorities and goals. Because if I don’t care, that’s it. They will never happen. End of story.

Becoming good at things takes a long time. Even if some of it comes easy to you, it takes a long time, just less of a long time. It took me twelve years to become as good at singing as I wanted to be, and really more like fifteen to get it completely secured. I took off maybe a year during that period of my life, and the rest of the time, I sang and sang and sang some more. Even when I knew I sucked. Particularly when I knew I sucked.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

When I first started writing, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I don’t know if you can be, really, right when you’re starting out. There’s an experimental phase, when you try something out. See if you like it. See if you’re at all good at it. See if it has any meaning to you. See if this is a thing to which you can devote yourself. Because not everything will be. And if it’s not for you, then it’s not only okay to quit but a good idea. This level of commitment is not for everyone.

I noticed the shift when this changed for me. When writing became a true calling. When I realized I’d be writing anyway, even if I couldn’t turn it into a career. When writing became less about the desperation of wanting a particular project to sell and more about doing the work. When the writing became more interesting and all-consuming than what would happen afterwards. When whether this novel sells or not became less important because I’m already thinking about the next several potential novels to write.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t care about my career or that I don’t care about publishing my novels. I do care, and I take the necessary steps towards that goal. But I care about the writing itself more, and knowing this makes doing the business and career stuff much easier. I want to become better not so I will then become published (although that would be great) but because I’m interested in becoming better for its own sake. I no longer have to look for external validation to reinforce my commitment. I’m committed, full stop.

The early stages of becoming a writer are so very much about not quitting. And putting in time and practice, and finishing things. And finding a way to hang in there through the rejection and the failure and the process of becoming better. And falling in love with telling stories, over and over again.

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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.

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Around my birthday, I received a request to write on the blog about my thoughts on aging. It’s a fabulous topic but oh so loaded, so I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about what to say.

I could spend the next five hundred words dancing around the topic, and we all might be a little more comfortable if that’s what I did (I certainly would), but here’s the truth. My views on aging are inescapably tied to my own present experience, and my own present experience is as a woman of a certain age, and a single woman, no less. And what society and the media tells me about women like me is not palatable. I have to expend a certain amount of energy rejecting the negative messages I’m receiving, and even so, I sometimes internalize them by accident.

This is not pretty, but it is reality.

Like it or not, we live in a society that places a very high value on youth and on physical appearance. Women in particular receive constant messages from a very young age that their primary value comes from their appearances, appearances that will inevitably, because of our cultural beauty standard, fade with age. Aging, then, forces us to redefine our own value and place in the world. Women are also more likely to be defined in media by their relationships to others. By a certain age, if they’re in the movies at all, they’re most often somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife, and beyond these roles, they aren’t very fleshed out. (Television seems to do a bit better, which is why I adore Gilmore Girls, for example, in which the main character Lorelai, in spite of being a mother, consistently defines herself.)

So there are some obvious problems here, and earlier this year, I began to feel a new uneasiness about my age. I heard a comment about how it’s all downhill for a woman after 30, and I was unable to deflect. So instead I felt anxious and self-conscious about my age, and then I hit a mini-crisis point. A new acquaintance asked me point-blank how old I was, and my knee jerk response was to refuse to answer. That had never been who I was–I’ve never had any problem telling someone how old I am–but in that moment, I saw that it could become who I was, that I had begun to buy into the absurdity of belittling myself because of my age.

I had reached a crossroads, and after some reflection, I realized that no, this was not okay. We have to embrace who we are–ALL of who we are–and our ages are a part of that. There is nothing to be ashamed of there, whatever society may tell us, and if the question is framed in such a way as to create that shame, that’s on the other person. If my answer causes disappointment or judgment, well, that’s not a person who is going to enrich my life in any case.

And I told the acquaintance my age without apology.

When I contemplated which candles to buy for my “Come as You Aren’t” party, I decided to buy 5 and 0 because if I was coming as I wasn’t, I wanted to come older than I am. I wanted to say, my life would be just as awesome the way it is if I were 50. My age does not matter. My life is defined by myself and by the priorities I have carefully chosen. Not by my appearance. Not by my relationships to others. By me.

You know what I'm not thinking here? "Do I look old?" Nah, I'm thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I've worn a tie, oh my!

You know what I’m not thinking here? “Do I look old?” Nah, I’m thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I’ve worn a tie, oh my!

And I like being who I am. I feel more attractive than I did ten years ago, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I have such a greater understanding of who I am. When I look in the mirror, I don’t think, “Wow, I look old.” I think, “Hey, I look happy today” or “I’m tired, I need to start going to bed earlier” or “I need to open my mouth more vertically for that belted note” or even “I like the way I look.” Heaven forbid.

We think so much about age as a physical thing, and in particular how it affects the way we look. But part of age is very much an internal thing. Sometimes I feel vastly old, and sometimes I feel bright and new. (This feeling may or may not be correlated to how much sleep I’ve been getting.) Sometimes I have the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, and other times I have the world-weariness of a sixty-five-year-old. I can be as naive as a ten-year-old and as wise as a seventy-year-old. All on the same day!

Much more important to keep in mind, then, is a commitment to openness, to change, to flexibility and resilience. Much more important to cultivate is a sense of humor. Much more important to remember is to see the beautiful parts of the world as well as the painful parts in order to keep some lightness of spirit.

Because in the end what matters is not our age but who we have chosen to be in whatever time we’ve had.

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Isn’t there a saying that everything in this life worth having requires a certain amount of risk?

If there isn’t, there should be.

Life doesn’t come with a guarantee.

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The trick, then, is figuring out what you’re willing to risk and what you’re not willing to risk. Or if you’re me, figuring out which risks are healthy and which risks are dysfunctional.

Fear, unfortunately, does not tend to be the most reliable indicator. Fear can exist for both positive risks and harmful risks. Sometimes we are more afraid of risks that will be good for us than risks that will be actively detrimental.

Sometimes we want to choose a risk that would be bad for us because those old unhealthy patterns are so very comfortable.

Sometimes what we want has nothing at all to do with the wise course of action.

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Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc

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Here’s what happens when you aren’t willing to risk at all:

Nothing happens!

Unless life forces itself on you, which it has a habit of doing. So maybe a few things will happen. Eventually. Randomly. And inevitably. The days will pass, and you will get older, and the world will slowly change around you.

You can embrace stagnancy. Which, when you think about it, is actually a pretty big risk to take too. It just takes less effort.

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Here’s what happens when you are willing to take some risks:

Maybe you will fail, and you will be completely and absolutely devastated.

Maybe you will fail, and you will learn something.

Maybe you will fail, and you will realize it wasn’t very important to you after all. Or that it is SUPER important, and you are determined to keep trying.

Maybe you will fail, and you will see that you are strong. Maybe stronger than you think.

Maybe you will succeed!

Maybe you will kind of succeed, and end up taking some strange tangent, and it turns out to be the best thing that could have ever happened.

Maybe you will realize that risks are okay, and pain is okay, and disappointment is okay, and All the Emotions are okay.

Maybe you will succeed, and then you’ll realize you have to take ANOTHER risk. Darn it.

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The past few years, I’ve taken some big risks. Big enough that beforehand, I feel sick to my stomach, and I have to take deep breaths and make strange Amy hand gestures to convince myself to go forward.

(You think I’m kidding about the hand gestures?)

I’ve laid myself bare on the page. I’ve asked for what I needed, even when I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting it. I’ve said no, and I’ve said yes. I’ve taken a close look at things I don’t want to look at, and I’ve shared things I’ve been afraid to share. I’ve committed myself to change, and I’ve committed myself to holding boundaries that force me to acknowledge the painful behavior of others.

I have taken a few long shots, because the unlikely payoff would be so freaking beautiful, it makes the risk completely worth it.

I would take them again.

And I have failed

And I have lost.

And I have found things that are infinitely precious to me.

I have cried myself to sleep, and I have been blissfully happy.

And my life is so much richer for it all.

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Everything worthwhile in this life requires a certain amount of risk.

The choice is yours.

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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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In both composing music and writing, we talk about the value of limits.

Shouldn’t the imagination be limitless, you might ask?

Well, yes and no. Without some sort of structure within which to organize the imagination, the end result tends to be disjointed, rambling, and/or incoherent. Structure tends to allow the impact of a work to be more easily conveyed and understood. Even experiments in looser structure or “no” structure are informed by their structure or lack thereof, and they are using that difference or lack to say something.

This is why in music we have different forms: the sonata, the concerto, the art song cycle, the rondo, the fugue. Each form has its rules, and the rules must be understood before some of them may perhaps be broken or subverted or played with. In a similar way, prose has different forms, common structures, and genres that form sandboxes within which we play. (And even if we leave the sandbox all together, it’s rare that our work isn’t somehow informed by that fact.)

Structure lends definition to our ideas, which in turn gives us more artistic freedom. If we literally have every single note of every single rhythmic value at every time at our disposal, there are so many possibilities it becomes difficult to think. We face decision paralysis, or at the very least spend huge amounts of time considering such a large number of alternatives, most of which wouldn’t be very effective at all in practice. Structure frees us to consider more possibilities by narrowing down the scope of our canvas.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

Sometimes life feels very similar to me. As nice as all that advice sounds to “live life without limits,” if you spend more than a few minutes thinking about it, it’s simply not practical. We are constantly placing limits on ourselves and our lives: where we decide to live (or if we decide to be nomadic, because that places different constraints); what careers/education we decide to pursue; what lifestyle choices we make; how we spend our time. Because each minute we decide to spend practicing piano is a minute we aren’t going to be spending writing or cooking dinner or hanging out with family or what-have-you. Ultimately we are limited by the number of hours in the day, by the number of hours we need to spend sleeping, and by our finite life spans, as well as by a host of other individual mental, emotional, and physical traits.

While some of these limits can be frustrating (why do I need eight hours of sleep per night? why?), they ultimately allow us to set our priorities and pursue our lives according to what we value and find important. Overall this is a positive thing.

Except when it isn’t. We become so used to living within limits and imposing more limits upon ourselves, at a certain point we might stop being conscious with our decisions. Not only that, we might not even recognize there is a choice in the first place. This is when limits move from being a force of good to being a force that holds people back.

Limits help us make decisions, be who we want to be, and accomplish what we want to accomplish. But limits also exist to be questioned. It is only through questioning that we can discover which limits are useful and which are unnecessary. It is only through questioning that we can determine which limits are real and which are unconscious beliefs we hold that might not actually be true.

It is only through questioning that we can realize our full potential, whether that be in a specific creative project or the creative project that is life.

 

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I had a conversation with a new acquaintance who told me that when he is in a romantic relationship, he pretty much falls off the face of the earth when it comes to his friends. And not just during the “honeymoon” phase of the relationship, either, but for the entire duration. And he seemed pretty content with this state of affairs.

But this conversation made me realize (yet again) how very important it is to ME to have my social ties.

I’ve been thinking about this too because I have a few close friends who have embarked on new relationships in recent months. They’ve made it a point to continue to spend time with me and not fall off the face of the planet. But I’ve been very aware of this as a choice we get to make.

I read an article recently about what makes people happy (because those articles are one form of my crack, along with sugar and chai and adorable little dogs), and the first secret mentioned was friends and the existence of social support:

“Turns out, there was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships.”

Notice the plural of that last word? I’m willing to go out on a limb and bet that one social relationship is not what we’re talking about here. Social relationships, whether they be friends or family or colleagues or communities, are so important to general well-being. And putting all of that into one relationship is like the old cliché of putting all your eggs into one basket. It puts an awful lot of strain on that one basket.

To be clear, I don’t think a person needs huge amounts of social ties in order to be happier. Some people do, and other people need a few close ties. I myself fall somewhere in the middle. In other words, this isn’t so much an issue about extroverts vs. introverts, but more, I think, a question of having any healthy system of social support.

Friends! Also, Innovation! Photo by Yvette Ono.

Friends! Also, Innovation! Photo by Yvette Ono.

Unfortunately we live in a culture that sometimes idealizes romantic relationships–the One True Love, the one who will complete us, our other half–to the detriment of other relationships. Add in a Puritan work ethic that teaches us to neglect social ties in favor of working ever more hours to get ahead, and we end up discouraging people from forming and maintaining the social networks that will make them happy. Even the rise of the nuclear family in American life contributes to this effect, as it is easier to maintain social ties while raising children within a more collective approach to child-rearing.

Luckily, I believe in the power of priorities and persistence. (And apparently also the power of alliteration.) If we choose to place a high priority on our social connections, and if we continue to pursue this goal even when it is hard–and making friends as an adult is not always an easy business–then it is very possible to have the social support that we crave. And this makes us happier to boot!

How important are your social ties to you? How do you maintain them even when you’re busy and/or distracted?

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