Posts Tagged ‘Theodora Goss’

I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

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What subjects do you avoid? What don’t you like to admit? What topics do you not talk about because they feel somehow inappropriate?

Theodora Goss’s recent blog post Telling the Truthis an excellent and thought-provoking essay well worth a read: “And this got me thinking about all the things we don’t talk about,” she says. “There are so many of them!”I think a lot about all the things we don’t talk about. In fact, that was one of the reasons I wanted to start a blog, because I wanted to have a platform from which to speak about some of these things. But of course, I still carefully write around so many of these things of which we never speak.

I recently spoke to a friend of mine who revealed that he used to have crushes on girls starting in third grade. He had never told anyone else about this because he was embarrassed because he thought it was out of the ordinary. Can you imagine? I had crushes in elementary school, and some people in my classes even had “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” (although of course it meant something slightly different back then). But you know what? I never talked about my crushes. And apparently no one else talked about them to my friend either, so he’s spent all this time secretly thinking that he’s different, that something was wrong with him, because he failed to pick up the social cues that would have informed him that crushes aren’t so unusual after all.

I wonder how many things we are all secretly embarrassed about or ashamed of that are, in reality, very common. Only we never find this out because we’re all busy feeling like outsiders together.

I think many of us are ashamed of failure, like Dora says in her essay. I know I am, and being a perfectionist doesn’t help out with this. And yet, failure is essential for those of us with ambitious dreams. Most people don’t succeed with huge dreams right away. I listened to an interview with Seth Godin the other day in which he bemoaned how afraid so many people are of failure. This fear holds us back. It makes us unwilling to take the risks we need to take to learn, to grow, and to achieve something truly great. And yet, even though I understand the need for failure intellectually, it doesn’t take away the fear.

But on the other hand, the more I fail, the more I know that I am living an interesting and daring life. Failure is taking your life and seeing what you can wring from it instead of coasting along and choosing the safest route. Failure is pursuing lofty goals and pushing back against the fear. Failure is exposing yourself to the world and teaching yourself to believe in the you of possibilities instead of the you of limitations. Failure is the strength to believe in yourself so much that you can rise above your worries (or the reality) of what other people think about you.

Failure is saying, “This is my life, and I’m going to make every inch of it mine.”
Maybe if we can reclaim failure, it won’t be so scary after all. Or at least maybe it can become a badge of courage instead of one of shame.

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Here it is, WorldCon week! I am so excited to be seeing so many of my favorite people and getting to spend time learning and discussing such interesting things. If you will also be attending WorldCon, please don’t hesitate to come up to me and introduce yourself. I love meeting new people, and if you tell me that you read my blog, I can guarantee that I’ll be bubbling over on the inside. On a business note, I have scheduled posts for my absence, but the comment answering is going to continue to be slow for the next week or so.

I’m also pleased to accept The Parking Lot Confessional’s Validation Ticket blog award. If you go visit them, you will see that Amy says some very nice things about me and my blog. She also says I’m fearless. Doesn’t that have a nice ring? I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’m going to practice saying it to myself in the mirror anyway.

Part of the deal with this award is that I’m supposed to pass it on to other blogs. Now, back in the day, I was always the kid that broke the chain letter loop, so I have this slightly squirmy feeling about this. However, I thought it would be a nice opportunity for me to highlight a few blogs that I think are worth your time.

Renaissance Oaf: Sean Craven was a classmate of mine at Taos Toolbox, which is how I discovered his blog. He has got his blog voice down, and I love reading about his slightly off-kilter take on many subjects. Speaking of fearless, Sean often ventures deep into autobiographical territory, and he has some fascinating tales to tell.

Theodora Goss: You probably remember that I’ve mentioned this blog before because I really can’t say enough good things about it. In a medium in which all the “experts” are telling you that you have to blog on a single subject, I look at Dora’s blog and think, “Yeah, they’re wrong. This is how a writer blog should be done.” She does have recurring subjects just like I do; she talks often about beauty, about creating and living a creative life, about art. And she has a beautiful voice that pervades everything she writes.

Tribal Writer:  I looked at Justine Musk’s blog originally when I decided to start The Practical Free Spirit, and I thought, “Yes. I want to do something like that. Only by me instead.” Justine writes some fiery inspirational essays; she also talks about feminism, finding your power, being a creative “bad ass,” and how to create your own tribe.

What do these three bloggers have in common? They all come across as fearless adventurers, and as you read their blogs, you realize they’re sharing an essential part of themselves. They are each extremely comfortable in their own voices. And all three of them encourage me to think, to challenge my assumptions, and to see the world a little bit differently.

I’m always looking for new blogs to check out, so tell me: what blog rocks your world? What do you like about it?

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In the book about plot I’m reading (20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias), Mr. Tobias talks about how plot and structure in fiction differ from real life. In real life, he says, there are not the same links of causation. Life is chaotic and sometimes (even often), things occur because of chance and wild coincidence (whereas in fiction, it’s really hard to get away with coincidence and generally denotes sloppy plotting). Some loose ends never get wrapped up in real life, we never know the true “ending”, and much of what happens seems to be without meaning and never gets explained. The Absurdists try to reflect this random reality in their literature: Camus and Kafka are two well-known writers who do this well. (And incidentally, you know who else identifies as an Absurdist? Joss Whedon. An explanation for Puppet Angel, perhaps.)

From the TV show Angel

Theodora Goss, who has a beautiful blog, has a slightly different view: “Happiness is the ability to create satisfying stories about reality. To find the stories that fulfill you, that allow you to achieve what you desire. That fill you with joy. Because reality is, to a certain extent, our perception of it. Achieving what you desire may also involve altering reality itself, changing your circumstance.”

I’m inclined to agree with her. The power of storytelling is making order from chaos and meaning from seemingly unrelated events. But stories don’t merely reside in our books and entertainments. We are constantly telling ourselves our own stories, and in so doing, we are cementing certain events into memory and into part of who we are. By doing this, we construct a reality that no longer appears quite so random and out of control.

We are in the continuous process of creating ourselves. “I’m the person who did xyz. I’m the person to whom this happened. I’m the person who spends my time in this way. This is what is important to me.” That’s why I’m always harping about the importance of priorities. Because priorities are a way of expressing deep truths about ourselves and making our most important desires into reality.

Humans as a species are fascinated by the quest for meaning. This desire for meaning is reflected in many aspects of our culture: in our art, our religions, the Enlightenment and our fervor for science, and our ease of slipping into diametric thinking (black and white, good and evil). We spend our lives trying to make sense of our childhoods, the people around us, and the huge life-altering events that intrude into our sense of order (war, natural disaster, illness and death, wide-scale oppression and resistance). We ask, why are things the way they are? How does the universe work? In what direction is human civilization heading? Or, more personally, why doesn’t So-and-so like me? What is my purpose in life? What will make me happy?

We have to be very careful with the stories we tell ourselves, the movies in our minds. (You can thank Miss Saigon for that pretty turn of phrase.) If we tell ourselves negative stories or harshly self-critical stories, these stories will eventually manifest themselves, often in self-limiting behaviors and self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and unhappiness. If, on the other hand, we tell ourselves that we’re geniuses who can do no wrong, we can become out of touch with the humanity around us and struggle to find compassion for others.

On their own, our lives do not fit together neatly into a perfect puzzle of reality. We create the frame of reference from which we can understand ourselves and the world around us. We make our own explanations and our own meaning. What this means, I believe, is that ultimately we choose the slant of our lives until we die. Are we empowered? Can we make change? Or are we victims or characters in a tragedy, or are we taking an active role in life? Can we find the good in our situation and encourage it to grow? Or is everything about life difficult and glaring and out to get us?

In the movie Holiday, the old screenwriter Arthur tells his friend Iris that she should be “the leading lady” of her own life, but for some reason she is behaving “like the best friend.” We each have that choice in the stories we tell ourselves. Are we the hero of our tale, or are we relegating ourselves to a supporting role?

Be the hero. Be the protagonist. Be the person who acts instead of the person who is acted upon. We are all leading ladies and men. And we each get the privilege of creating the stories of our lives.

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