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Posts Tagged ‘uncertainty’

“In the end we always act in the dark.” – Rebecca Solnit

I have always been a big planner.

My parents were also planners. My mom made a to-do list every week, even though she had a weekly schedule that didn’t involve a lot of variation. We rotated through the same dinners on a weekly basis: Monday was spaghetti night, Friday was pizza night. My dad planned road trips precisely by mileage. I started learning how to budget when I was eleven.

I enjoy planning. A well-laid plan skillfully executed gives me joy. I like planning trips and parties and my social calendar and my writing projects. I like analyzing, and I like strategizing. I like the sense of accomplishment I receive from meeting goals and milestones.

But.

I also agree with Rebecca Solnit. There is an uncertainty inherent in being alive, in being human. We don’t know the time of our deaths. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We might have a good guess, we might hope, but we don’t know. Not for sure.

And sometimes life takes a sudden swift turn, and we end up on a train to Transylvania just because it sounds cool. Or we end up spending five days lounging on the couch unable to leave the house because we are so ill, or two years struggling to walk more than a block because we are so injured. We end up breaking hearts or having our hearts broken. We end up having one of those perfect moments that bubble up from time to time, whose very essence lies in their unpredictability.

Some things cannot be planned.

Some things–and I feel like I’m about to commit sacrilege by saying this–some things cannot be practical.

And sometimes embracing the reality of the darkness, of not being able to see the hand in front of our faces, of not knowing and sinking into the uncomfortable truth of not knowing–sometimes this is the only way forward.

It is through not being able to see or know that we are able to sink deep within and become aware of those truths that endure through the uncertainty, in spite of or perhaps even because of it.

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Rebecca Solnit discusses the role of uncertainty and darkness in the life of the artist in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” which is in her collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me (how could I not read a book with a title like that?) and which also was adapted for the New Yorker.

My discovery of this essay last week was timely. Unpredictable, even. I’m in that gap between novel drafts that I always find uncomfortable, and meanwhile I had a conversation that made me question what it means to me to be a writer.

Being a writer, or really any kind of artist, is filled with a weird kind of uncertainty. The creative process can be planned, it can be quantified, it can be optimized, and yet…. there’s this point, for me, when all of that falls away. The plans, the ambition, the practicality, no longer speak so loudly. It’s not that they’re gone, exactly, and they can sometimes be forced to the fore when necessary, but they are in service to creation, not the other way around. And things click the way they click. Unpredictably. Not not always in the way I planned.

Onto this conversation about my writing career. We spoke about the timescale, and the other person said (paraphrasing) he’d write as much as possible in order to succeed as quickly as possible. And, he said, regardless of questions of money, I wouldn’t want to keep writing forever if I never succeeded in getting books published, would I?

And practically speaking, I’d have to agree with him. But the funny things is, I don’t actually agree with him. Not at all. I’m a writer through and through. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing songs and music. It is so fundamentally folded into who I am, this compulsion to create, I would be bereft without it. It is one of the forces that has shaped who I am, something that feels simultaneously like something I chose and like something that chose me. I’m all in. And success (or at least this definition of success), while it is something I would like, is not the only part of the equation.

Being fully committed to being a writer in this moment feels like another definition of success.

Perhaps this is one of those things that has nothing to do with practicality. Perhaps being a writer is like swimming in the dark. You never know what you will find. In spite of your best efforts to chart your course, you never know exactly where you’re going.

I don’t know what the future holds. All I know is that I write.

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” So wrote Virginia Woolf.

Yes. The future is dark. It defies even the most perfect plans.

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You’re Stuck, Amy

My friend gave me a Tarot reading Friday night, during a writer party in which we mocked the Self Esteem game and had a dramatic reading of The Houseplants of Gor. I like Tarot readings because I think, at their best, they can help me clarify my thinking and pull back to see the big picture.

My central card: The Wheel of Fortune

My central card: The Wheel of Fortune

After looking at a few of my cards, my friend said, “It seems like you’re kind of stuck right now.” She explained why in the language of the cards, but I don’t remember that part because instead I was thinking, “Yes, that’s true. I’m totally stuck. Huh.” Which is also why I like Tarot readings, because once in a while they slap you with things you already know but are halfway ignoring.

But yes, I have been stuck. That’s why I look at rental listings when I need to be cheered up, because I know that if I fail to unstick myself any other way, I can move someplace else and the upheaval that will cause has a high chance of unsticking me. It almost doesn’t matter where I move because it’s not about location, it’s about shaking things up enough that they start flowing again. And therefore, looking at rental listings is supremely comforting, in spite of the fact that I’ve already moved twice in the last year and a half and the last thing I really want to do is pack all my stuff up AGAIN.

Just sitting there and thinking about how stuck I’ve been feeling made me feel less stuck than before. It’s funny how that works.

One of the other themes of my reading was uncertainty. Which was another moment of, “Oh yeah, there is a lot of uncertainty in my life right now, and I wonder how I’m doing with that.”

My novel’s out to agents, and there’s not much for me to do there but wait. In the meantime, I haven’t figured out what my next novel is going to be yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do when my lease is up, and I don’t know how much my rent is going to increase. I don’t know where I’m going to travel next year, what events I’m going to attend, and February has become this strange nexus point of so many possibilities that I wonder if anything at all is going to happen then (if not, I have friends who are on board for hate-watching Shades of Grey, which is already pretty excellent). When it comes down to it, I don’t really know in which direction I am heading.

It’s all relative, though, this kind of uncertainty. I expect I’ll be writing, and I expect a certain little dog will continue to add to my happiness. I expect there’ll be people around who I care about. Perhaps most importantly, I’m not waiting for doom to fall down onto my head like an anvil, which makes life so much better and the uncertainty so much more manageable.

My reading concluded with this thought: Trust yourself and pick your battles. Which, yeah, is decent advice, although sometimes hard to implement.

I think the “You are stuck” part was the best though. Because soon after I’d heard that, I had the brilliant idea of switching strategies. Instead of throwing myself repeatedly at my problems, tangling my limbs and collecting bruises and generally exhausting myself, what if I chilled out a little and focused on what I did have instead of what I didn’t? That’s not to say I haven’t been trying to do this the entire time I’ve been stuck, but I guess I was finally ready.

In the end, I needed to hear someone tell me I was stuck so I could realize that being not stuck was also an option.

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“The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” – Anne Morriss

My friend posted this quotation on Facebook the other day, and I’ve been thinking ever since about the relationship between commitment, fear, and change.

Commitment is, in a way, about leaning into the fear. Because once we become wholly committed to something, then we have something to lose in a way we didn’t before, and that can be really freaking scary. And commitment is about change, because even if it doesn’t cause any outward differences, it transforms what’s going on inside our minds and hearts. It alters our personal stories.

To commit fully is to feel naked and exposed. It is to drop any facade of insouciance or nonchalance. It is almost a confession, that this, this is something I’ve chosen to pour my heart, my energy, my time, and my passion into.

Commitment doesn’t come with any guarantees of success. If it did, it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting, so raw, so immersive in that which is vulnerable. But it does, as Anne Morriss says, remove our heads as barriers. It allows us to throw ourselves completely into our lives. It allows us to choose the kind of lives about which we can later sit down and write memoirs.

Photo Credit: thomas_sly via Compfight cc

When I think about my life, I realize that I couldn’t have followed through on the really hard things I’ve done without deep commitment. I couldn’t have gotten my college degree or had a senior recital. I couldn’t have moved to London. I couldn’t have started my own business. I couldn’t have become a writer. I couldn’t have engaged on a personal and emotional level with the people who are important to me. And I couldn’t have changed who I am and how I relate to the world.

All of those things involved risk and the chance of failure. All of them allowed the possibility of someone saying no, of things going wrong, of heartache and disappointment and mistakes, of me wimping out. All of them scared me.

When I arrived in London with my two gigantic suitcases, just out of college and with a freshly broken heart, a friend met me at the airport and helped me get to the place I was staying. And then he left, and I sat there, and I thought, “Oh my god, what have I done?” And then I cried. But the next morning I got out of bed and I left my flat and I explored London. Because I was committed to being there and having the richest experience I could, even though I was lonely and scared and didn’t know what I was doing.

There are so many times when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. Commitment helps me lean into the fear and discomfort of that feeling, and do it anyway. If we want to put ourselves out there in the world, if we want to try to do amazing things, I think that kind of commitment is necessary. The commitment gives us the permission we need to really go for it.

Commit and be free. I like that. It’s the kind of complex idea that requires a lot of thought to see the layers of truth it contains.

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As I type this, it is Sunday night in New York City. I am alone in my hotel room on the 33rd floor. And the hurricane is coming this way.

I have prepared as much as I am able. I have water, food, and little LED lights. I have considered the possibility of flying debris breaking the window. I have charged up my Kindle and my iPod. I have changed my flight and talked to hotel reservation clerks.

There is nothing else I can do. So today, taking advantage of the subway that is now no longer running, I visited the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums. I looked at Kandinsky (my favorite was Small Pleasures) and Monet and Renoir paintings. I saw three gorgeous Fabergé eggs. I talked to a man whose handshake was crushing and could reel off famous quotations the way I can sing musical theater songs.

Inside the Guggenheim today

This has been, in many ways, a year of high uncertainty for me. But this hurricane takes it up another notch, so that now I am uncertain about basics of my physical comfort: is the power going to go out? Will I be able to keep warm with no heat? Did I buy enough supplies? Can I keep myself from going insane in the dark? How long it will last, and when will I be able to leave?

I hate uncertainty. I’m a big planner. Uncertainty tends to make me deeply uncomfortable. So that means I’ve been growing a lot this year, and this hurricane is like a particularly swift kick in the pants to make sure I keep at it.

Here is what I’ve learned about uncertainty. Even though I don’t like it, I can sit with it. I can be kind to myself in the middle of it. I can try to keep myself fed and well-rested so I can deal with it better. Once in a while I can even embrace it and see the potential it represents.

Uncertainty also heightens my appreciation and gratitude for what I do have right now. For having a purpose in life as exciting and fabulous as writing. For the wonderful people with whom I get to spend time. For cute snuggly little dogs who burrow into my side. For warm clothes and cupcakes and beautiful art and performance art that pushes boundaries. For leaves that change color in the autumn. For courage and wisdom and curiosity and kindness and vulnerability. And for the open-hearted generosity that so many people have been showing me.

And you know what? I even feel grateful for being afraid to die. Because that means I have so very much to live for.

I’ll be in the heart of uncertainty for the next few days. I’m even uncertain as to whether there will be another blog post this week. But I hope there will be.

Do you have any thoughts about uncertainty? I’d love to hear them!

ETA Tuesday 12:30am: It appears that the worst of the storm is over where I am. I’m fine, I still have power, and none of the windows broke. Many thanks to all my fine friends who reached out to me while the storm raged.

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Resistance against self publishing has been steadily crumbling. Last week a writer friend of mine who had been vehemently opposed to such ideas no more than a year ago even mentioned that she’d consider self publishing. I never expected to hear those words from her, and it’s a powerful illustration for me of the mainstream acceptance self-publishing has begun to receive.

However, it is still impossible to have a discussion about self publishing without bringing up the question of quality. How will readers find the good books in the mountains of soul-rending slush? How can a writer ensure she is releasing a quality book without a publisher’s stamp of approval?

Well, Kris Rusch hits the answer out of the park in her blog entry last week, so I’m not going to repeat everything she said. In a nutshell, there have been huge numbers of books published for a long time, so the needle in a haystack problem is nothing new and has solutions (or at least aides) firmly in place. Having something come out from a publisher is not a guaranteed mark of quality. And it is possible to hire outside help when self publishing, thereby ameliorating the quality problem.

But it occurs to me that the question we are really asking ourselves as writers is, “How will I know when I’m good enough?”

The answer is, you won’t. You might never be sure you’re good enough, even if you’re traditionally published. Especially if you’re a newer writer without the benefit of years of practice and experience. You just might not know.

I’ve known writers who think they’re seriously good, and I can barely read their prose. I’ve known writers who have won multiple awards and still aren’t convinced they’re any good at what they do. I’ve known writers who were doing all right but got complacent and their work suffered. And I’ve known writers who fall everywhere in the middle.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s a cognitive bias wherein people who are less competent overestimate their own abilities. When in doubt, people tend to rate themselves as above average…way more people than could possibly actually be above average at a given skill. It turns out that when people aren’t competent at something, they also lack the knowledge to correctly assess their skill level. On the flip side, people who actually are above average suffer from false consensus effect: the false assumption that their peers are performing about the same as them, as long as they don’t have any evidence to the contrary. So they tend to underestimate their own abilities. This explains why sometimes in a conversation about a subject, the loudest person is someone who obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about, while the quiet person listening in the corner might really know her stuff.

The problem with these phenomena is that you can’t necessarily tell if they’re happening to you (although if you’re worried about being good enough, that’s probably a positive sign). You can’t know for sure that you’re good enough. And you know what? You can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a small press run by one editor either. And you can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a big house…and then flops. And you can’t know if you sell a story to a big market like Asimov’s because after a few months, you might wonder if you’ll ever write another story that’s good enough.

And at some point in this cognitive tail chase, you have to decide if you are willing to stand behind your work. The answer might be no, and that’s fine. Then you wait and learn and practice and slowly become a better writer. Until the answer is yes, at which point you’re going to have to take the plunge, regardless of your method of publication, without knowing for sure if you are good enough.

And you know what I think? As long as you’re producing the best work you are able, that is good enough for right now.

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