Posts Tagged ‘determination’

I have a love-hate relationship with being a free spirit. I wouldn’t change who I am for the world, but it comes with its fair share of heart ache and difficulty.

Sometimes I want to be a sheep, happily grazing in a flock of other sheep and doing exactly what everyone else does. I don’t want to wander off on my own, I don’t want to forge my own path. I don’t want to collect data until I reach the inescapable conclusion that the traditional way isn’t my way. I want life to be easy, all in a straight line, with my only task being to connect the dots. I want to follow the rules, I want to pay my dues, I want to embrace a guaranteed path to success.

Of course, there are no sure paths. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that you can never predict how it’s going to turn out or what opportunities may rise unexpectedly. It’s good to ask questions and reach your own conclusions, because what if circumstances have changed and conventional wisdom is just flat-out wrong? It’s good to take stock and figure out what will make you the happiest, even if the answer is unique and makes your friends and acquaintances shake their heads.

The sad truth is, sometimes people are judgmental. We emphasize the need to fit in during high school in YA novels and movies, and act like this social need doesn’t continue past a certain age. But does it disappear on our eighteenth birthdays? No. Life is not so simple and clear-cut as all that.

The result is, if we decide to be a free spirit, if we make nonconformist decisions or hold nontraditional ideas, we’re going to catch a certain amount of heat, whatever our age. Not only that, but we’ll be making our own road maps as we go, which can be a solitary and scary endeavor. Sometimes we’ll fail spectacularly, and our failures will be all the more visible because we were trying something unusual — something people didn’t think we should be trying, or something people assumed we couldn’t make work. Even when we do succeed, people will try to belittle what we have accomplished.

The conventional advice on this subject is that we shouldn’t care what people think, but sometimes we are going to care, no matter how hard we try to deny it. Therein lies the dark side to living a life outside the normal boundaries. It takes courage and self-respect, and sometimes it will sting in spite of ourselves. Sometimes we may weaken a little bit and wish we could be like everybody else, happily following the Pied Piper and playing it safe.

But we are not like everybody else. We cannot convince ourselves to be. It’s so much more exciting and fulfilling to question, to think, to decide what we honestly want and plot our own route to achieve it. It’s exhilarating to take risks and feel the buzzing, growing vitality of being alive and creating our own life stories. When I falter, I remind myself of how happy I am to have the power of choice, to be able to do what I love so much of the time, and to belong to a network of people who trust me to be me, no matter what choices (or even mistakes) I’m making.

What do you do when you falter? How do you stay strong in the face of judgement?

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I don’t like knowing my limits. In fact, I prefer the opposite: I like believing that I have very few limits, and making this belief as true as possible through sheer force of will. And when I discover that I have limits that won’t budge through will power alone, I try to create a work-around or at the very least find a more positive way to frame it for myself. 

I’m thinking about this right now because it turns out I’ve been fighting off a bacterial infection in my tooth for the past two and a half months. Fighting and losing, I might add. In spite of this, January was one of my more productive months in recent memory. In addition to writing ten essays for this website, I completed almost a third of my new novel-in-progress and wrote two new short stories. At the same time, I was thinking, “This is great, I’m so excited by what I’m doing, but why can’t I do more? Why am I so tired?” Only now do I have the understanding as to why these accomplishments exhausted me quite as much as they did.

So now it’s time for me to focus on taking care of myself, which is requiring a little bit of juggling over in Priority Central. The problem is, I believe that taking care of myself is a high priority, but sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle of other, flashier, more exciting priorities. When confronted with the choice between starting a new project and sitting around resting, I’d rather start the project. Plus I have this built-in Protestant work ethic that starts screaming at the slightest sign of the dread vice Sloth. And we won’t go into a certain pervasive stubborn streak in my nature.

Which is why I’m only stopped in my tracks now, when my tooth aches to the point where I might not mind ripping it out with my own fingers. I can’t keep working at my normal pace because I am physically incapacitated enough that I cannot concentrate. Here it is: I’ve reached my limit.

This week I’m forcing myself to take it easy. I don’t have specific word count goals or project goals. I’m trying to suppress my frustration at being delayed on all of this work that I’m so excited about doing. After all, I’m pretty lucky to be so enthusiastic about my work in the first place, and the excitement will keep. (Hear that, excitement? You are so going to stick around.) I’m going to watch some cheesy movies and TV shows, and I’m going to sleep as much as possible around my schedule of medicines. And I’m going in for more dental work, which is why I’m going to need all this recovery time in the first place.

This is life. I want it to be smooth, but it’s not. It’s bumpy, and it gets in the way of itself all the time. I don’t even get to bank up this being-good-to-myself time because I might need more of it later, depending on what this tooth has to say for itself. I want to stay up late every night and drink every minute in and live my dreams right this second, all the time. I want to be larger than life, but I’m not, at least not as often as I’d like. Sometimes I can’t do much of anything but sit here and wait to feel better and let numerous more knowledgeable people poke at my tooth. That is a limit, yes indeed.

But better to pack as much as possible within those pesky limits than miss out on being alive at all.

Anyone else run into an inconvenient limit lately? Feel free to commiserate below.

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When I was a teenager, I enjoyed dreaming big. I wanted to be a novelist, I wanted to work on animated features at Disney, I wanted to write games at Sierra (this was back when they were still doing cool stuff like Quest for Glory, Castle of Dr. Brain, and the King’s Quest series). I wanted to be a singer and actress and perform in musicals, I wanted to write musicals, I wanted to direct musicals. I knew that many of these aspirations were unrealistic and difficult, but I wanted them all anyway.

However, a family member who shall remain nameless said something to me one day, perhaps just an offhand remark, that became fully lodged in my young impressionable brain. “Amy,” the person said, “you have delusions of grandeur.” They might as well have said, “Why try, because the only possible outcome is failure.” Even today, half my lifetime later, whenever I think of trying something daring or risky or simply ambitious, those words go through my mind. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I say to my husband, “because so-and-so said.” And then he has to go through the work of convincing me to do whatever it is anyway.

Photo by Tony Fischer


I was reminded of this when I read Christie Yant’s recent essay, Lessons from the Slushpile: Good vs. Great. She discusses what distinguishes the great stories (and incidentally, the ones that are bought) from the rest, and one of the distinctions she’s made is that truly great stories have something to say. They say something that matters, that makes us as readers think or question or feel. They are ambitious, meant to illuminate as well as entertain.In my limited experience, these kinds of ambitious stories are rare, but it was by finding them that I first learned to appreciate, and later to love, short stories as a form.So why are these stories thin on the ground? Perhaps for one or more of these reasons (and there might well be others):

1. It’s difficult to come up with something to say in the first place.
2. Even if you’ve got something to say, it’s difficult to express it in a clear and original fashion.
3. Writing such a story means that on some level, you’ve got to have delusions of grandeur.

I think I had it right as a teenager. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to strive, to push ourselves beyond our perceived capabilities, to dive into projects of vast scope. They give us permission to take risks, do things that make us uncomfortable, and ignore those who don’t believe we can do it. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to become great.

So right now, I’m going to finish up this essay, and then I’m going to sit down and work on a short story that scares the pants off me. It makes me uncomfortable, it kind of makes me want to cry, I’m not quite sure I know where it’s going, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to follow it there. All I can do is believe in its potential, as I believe in my own.

Delusions of grandeur are the necessary caterpillars if we want our words to fly.

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The Cowardly Lion


The one thing I’ve always known about courage is that you don’t need to be brave unless you’re afraid.  If jumping out of an airplane is no big deal for you, then it doesn’t take courage to strap on your parachute and leap.  It’s just something cool that you’re doing.  But if you’re terrified of jumping and keep imagining your terrible and bloody death when you reach the ground, well, then you have something to be brave about.

What I’ve been less clear about is what courage really is and where it comes from.  I do so many things I’m afraid of because I don’t feel like I have a choice.  Take shots, for instance.  I’m really scared of shots, especially the Tetanus shot, but I dutifully go in and receive said shot when I need it.  In fact, I’m probably more dutiful about receiving it on schedule than someone who is less afraid of it.  But is it courage if I don’t have a choice?

I’ve been having a lot of problems with my back tooth over the past several weeks, and last weekend my injury came to a head.  I woke up in the middle of the night in simply excruciating pain.  It was hard for me to breathe, and involuntary tears streamed down my face.  My heart rate accelerated and my chest felt like it would explode.  So much pain to be caused by such a small part of my body.  In those moments, my nerve completely broke.  I would have done anything to make the pain stop.

The pain eventually receded, the Ibuprofen kicked in, my nerve came back, and there I was refusing to take the Codeine I’d been prescribed.  But that moment of sheer panic and helplessness made me realize something.

Courage is the choices we make every day.  Courage is my conscious decision to go to the doctor’s office and get that stupid Tetanus shot even though I know my arm’s going to hurt for the next week or two.  Courage is going to get a root canal instead of letting the infection spread.  Courage is allowing myself to fall in love again after suffering from a broken heart.  Courage is saying what I really think instead of being bland and inoffensive and nice.  Courage is doing what I want to do even when I know people will be mean or insensitive about it and I’m going to care that they don’t understand.

When I’m about to force myself through something scary, I sometimes forget that I do have a choice.  I’ve just already made it.

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The Tate Modern currently has an exhibition of Soviet era propaganda posters.  I spent a lot of time looking at them, but here is the one that sticks the most in my mind:

"Road to Talent"

On the left, we are shown a (presumably) talented violinist in the U.S., cold, poor, and hungry, wandering the streets at night and being unable to make a living from his music.  On the right, we see a similar violinist in the U.S.S.R., his skills being properly nurtured by the state, elegantly dressed, performing with an orchestra.  Of course, what the poster doesn’t show are any of the drawbacks of the state-sponsored system. 

My husband told me this poster wasn’t so far off the mark.  Many Soviet-trained musicians immigrated to Israel and it was common to see these world-class musicians busking on the streets.  There were simply not enough orchestra seats in the country to accommodate all of the incoming talent.

This got me thinking about the price we pay, as artists, for our art.  When does the price become too high?  Although in some ways the Soviet Union was ideal for artists, many were stifled: denied religious, sexual, or political freedom, not allowed to manage their own careers, censored.  For some musicians, it was obviously better to be busking in Israel than having a glamorous concert career back home.

Here is the U.S. the price for artists is very different.  There is the money/time trade-off: do you get a day job for money and then run low on time, or do you take the time for your art and embrace possible financial insecurity?  Can you achieve the dream of being successful enough to have both time and money?  Or can you find a compromise between the two like I did?  There is the rejection price: lots of hard work, often for years, with very little recognition or reward beyond that of the creation itself.  There is the voice of public opinion, wondering at the value of what you do, telling you that you’re wasting your time, confused as to why it’s taking you so long to become “famous”.  There is the pedestal-pit price of everyone either telling you how what you do is impossible (“I could never sing”) or how what you do is so simple (“I’ve always thought I could write a book”), to the point that it becomes hard to explain that art is rarely either impossible or simple, consisting mostly of a lot of hard work.

American artists complain about all these prices a lot, and that’s fine.  We’re letting off steam so we can go back and focus on our work.  Or we’re commiserating with one another.  Or we’re educating the public and trying to change the necessary prices.  But overall, I think we’re lucky.  I can write a book including controversial interpretations of American history or compose an opera on the evils of capitalism, and I won’t be thrown in jail.   I can believe what I want and talk about it ad nauseam on my publicly accessible blog.

Sure, the price can still become quite a hardship sometimes.  But we all have a choice about what priorities we’ll set, and we can even change our minds later on if it’s not working out the way we hoped.  I’ll choose the life of that violinist wandering around in the dark every time.  The confusion in the dark makes the art even more valuable in my eyes.

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Photo by Paul Bica

I have a family history of cancer.  My mom died of breast cancer, and her dad died of prostate cancer.  I was convinced that I would inevitably get cancer as well, and that I would probably die of it.  I knew that I must have one of those cancer genes I’d heard about that skyrocket the chances.  My doctor suggested a DNA test and I was horrified at the very idea.  More bad news?  No thanks.

Fast forward to earlier this year, when 23andme was having an incredible sale on their DNA test.  I decided to purchase one in spite of the fact that the very idea filled me with dread.  I figured the test would either tell me what I already thought I knew (aka I had some horrible cancer gene) or it would tell me I didn’t and it would be good news.  I had prepared myself so thoroughly for the worst that I could take the risk of having the test done.

I got the results a few months ago.  I don’t have any of those cancer genes.  Not only that, based on my genetics alone, I actually have a lower than average chance of ever getting breast cancer.  That’s right, lower than average.  While it’s true that there are other risk factors to account for here, my little story of doom collapsed in on itself at this news.

My story is not uncommon.  The facts we think we know are not always what is true, and the stronger the fear surrounding an issue, the more likely we are to fail to see clearly.  I’m scared of death and especially of dying young, and so it takes very little effort for me to create an entire repertoire of stories to support this possibility.  Unfortunately, these fears create visions of the world that can hold us back and cause great unhappiness.  They keep us living in some imaginary wasteland instead of enjoying the present.

Fear of failure is another one I see all the time.  “Oh, I can’t possibly write a novel.  I can’t possibly travel to a foreign country.  I can’t possibly have a happy romantic relationship with a partner who respects me.  I can’t open my own business or find a job I like.  I can’t change.”  I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

I’m here, not dying young of cancer, to tell you that you can.  The scope of human potential is infinite.  Yes, you may fail.  Yes, I may die young.  I’m not willing to let that chance keep me from living now.  Are you?

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When I decided I was going to write a novel, I was really scared.  I was also really irritated to be scared.  I mean, how many big projects had I completed with no problems?  How many times had I gotten up in front of an audience and sung in a foreign language I don’t even speak?  (Sometimes even when I knew I couldn’t sing the song in question very well at all.)  And yet sitting in front of a computer alone in my study with a blank screen in front of me was somehow terrifying?

To push myself to go through with my decision, I wrote a note to myself on a yellow post-it and placed it on the bottom right of my screen.  Here’s what my note says: “Writing isn’t so hard, it won’t take long, and I’m sure I can learn while I’m doing it.  No one else will judge me and my work because they are already so busy with their own problems.”

I wrote what I needed to hear, and I read that note a hundred times over the course of writing that novel.

Unfortunately, the note didn’t work quite as well when I was sending my novel out to agents and my short stories out to editors and getting form rejections.  It sure felt like the world was judging my work.  So I wrote a new post-it and put it beside the first one.  This one reads: “Concentrate on doing the very best you can.  This is what is important.”  This helped me focus on doing my own personal best instead of spending so much time obsessing on everything I wasn’t good enough at yet.

Over the last year, I’ve collected a few more helpful quotations on a white piece of paper taped up on my bookshelf, right next to my screen.  Happily these are all up and shareable via the powers of the Internet.

First I have The Happy Stop on the Writer Train, by Dorothy Winsor.  This helps me remember to focus on the part of writing I love; namely, the writing.

Then I have Neil Gaiman’s great take on rejection slips.  (The last paragraph is the one on my paper.)

Last week, I added Seth Godin’s Exploration and the risk of failure.  This reminds me of which category I am in (the second) and the source of a lot of my anxiety (the pull I feel towards the first).  It also reminds me that failure is a good thing.  (I know, what crazy talk is that?  Any other perfectionists out there?)

I love my collection of pieces of paper.  I don’t even have to read what’s written any longer to feel a sense of reassurance.  And have I ever needed reassurance this summer.  Transitioning away from my business has been, in many ways, very wrenching.  My brain is still muddled from my Taos Toolbox experience to the point where I second guess much of what reaches the page – which means that right now, the part of writing that I love is not writing after all.  I’ve been in a fair amount of physical pain, which distracts me like crazy, and I’ve received a few rejections that have cut to the bone more than usual.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I think all of us go through this kind of time, particularly during transitions.  And when you are going through your rough transition, or get that especially disappointing rejection note, or start going down the dark and dangerous road of comparing yourself to others, or can’t write well because your brain is buzzing or you have a headache or your ankles hurt so much you’re contemplating chopping them off and good riddance, well, maybe you’ll remember this entry and realize you’re not alone.  Maybe you’ll look at your own reassuring notes and be comforted.  (Maybe you’ll even add some of mine to yours.)

Maybe you’ll do what I’m going to do today: grit my teeth (although I don’t recommend this for dental health reasons), hold my chin up, and keep going in whatever way I can.  I’ll write some bad words, I’ll submit a few stories, and I won’t give up.  At least not today.

And tomorrow I’ll do it all over again.

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