Sunday, September 23, 2018

On pressure, perfection, and the sharing of stories

I've been reading lots of nonfiction, and after a run of memoirs about giving birth, my main reaction is: Holy cow, are women staggering under the burden of high expectations in that department.

Society has always loved to judge mothers--for being too strict or not strict enough, for working outside the home or inside it, for holding their babies too much or not enough. But I have found expectations building up around pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding, have read heartbreaking stories of women turning themselves inside out to try to have the perfect pregnancy, the perfect natural birth, the perfect breastfeeding experience. And then to try to recover their pre-pregnancy bodies as quickly as possible.

Giving birth is a huge, life-changing experience. As with any other experience so profound (in both the physical and emotional sense), I would say: It's okay to get through it however you can. To accept help, support, medication, technology. To acknowledge that impossible standards are bad for us. I'm glad women are talking and thinking and writing about these issues.One of the biggest reasons I read memoir is for that sense of connection with people, that commentary on the world we all share.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Some positive thing

I had lunch with a friend earlier this week, and we talked about how difficult it is to make a difference in the world, how easy it is to give up in frustration. And yet we agreed we'd rather do something than nothing, even if it's only to be one small drop in an ocean.

Today I came across this passage:

"... we must simply do something ourselves, whatever we can, instead of being so overwhelmed by the bad news everywhere that we become passive. Act now to wrest some positive thing out of the chaos."
--May Sarton, At Eighty-Two

Sarton's words were written in 1993, but they seem evergreen.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Because sometimes you just need a chuckle

Reporter, by Seymour Hersh, is a mostly serious look at the role of journalists, the years when Vietnam and Watergate dominated the news, the tension that has always existed between the powerful and those who write about them, the importance of questioning authority, and the fact that cover-ups and lies by the powerful have been around for decades. 

But there are humorous moments:
"As we got settled [around the pool], I saw a young woman reading my book [about Henry Kissinger] while sunbathing. Thirty minutes later she was fast asleep, with the opened book shielding her face from the sun."

Ah, the glamorous life of a writer!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

False starts, detours, and the projects that wait

Some stories don't work on the first attempt to write them, or the second, or the fifth, or the twentieth. I've had stories that came out in one draft, with only minor polishing required. More often, they come out in fits and starts, take a few dozen revision passes, and are settled and done. 

Other stories take much longer. They yield failed draft after failed draft, false start after false start. When they finally come out right, they grow from old stories, or beginnings, or characters, that originated years (even decades) earlier. Apparently there's a certain amount of living I need to do before I know where to take them, how to end them.The book I wrote in 2012 was a relief in that it completed a story I'd been trying to tell for years. I'm happy now with that story. The way it turned out was much better than the way I originally conceived it; it needed that time and those changes in me to ripen.

I have another such a story still in me, a story I've been trying to tell in various formats, with various characters and plot twists, for longer than I care to remember. I produced a version several months ago that I had high hopes for, and received some feedback on it, and what I've since concluded is that I'm still stuck. That version has good things in it, but I still haven't found the right way to tell that story.

Maybe I never will, but as long as I'm around, I'll keep trying. Maybe it needs some life experience or inspirational spark that I haven't had yet. It might need some puzzle piece to fall into place. In the meantime, I've gone on to other things, but I can feel it in the background, biding its time.

Friday, August 3, 2018

I will perfect my life and then ...

I will get my life in order, and then I will know what to do next. 

I've probably been saying and thinking this all my life. Luckily it hasn't paralyzed me. I have managed to write and publish, to get a graduate degree, to marry, to buy a house, to travel--all of which were decisions I could have put off indefinitely, waiting for everything to fall into place and life to be perfect.

But though I've acted despite imperfection, I still find some part of myself waiting for life to settle down. To have enough time to get organized, enough energy to plow through backlogs, enough insight to know instinctively the next right step. There's value in waiting and listening, value in mindful attention. And yet, I have to remind myself that my proverbial ducks are never going to be in a row. (They like to wander, those ducks, and who can blame them?) I will never achieve perfection.

Well, duh, you might say. Whatever gave me the idea I could reach some moment of perfect readiness? I have no idea. Maybe it's useful simply as a goal to keep forward momentum, without the expectation of arrival. Or maybe it can be dropped altogether, replaced by living in the moment.

I don't know, but maybe it will be fun to find out.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Back to basics

Not long ago, I read Judy Melinek's Working Stiff, the true story of her time as a medical examiner in New York City. In 2001.

As you can imagine, the book is full of the kind of not-for-the-squeamish gritty realism you'd expect from any pathologist's memoirs, with the added horrors of handling the victims of 9/11. But the story in the book that shocked me the most, the one that has haunted me ever since, was not particularly graphic or gruesome, and had nothing to do with 9/11.

In investigating the death of a surgical patient, Melinek and the others on the investigating committee discovered that the surgeon--a highly placed and well-respected doctor from a sterling institution--had never learned to tie a proper surgical knot. How had he advanced so far in his career without learning this most elementary of surgical skills? Inside how many other patients had he left what Melinek called "granny knots?"

Fortunately, most writers can't cause such dire consequences by failing to master the basics of our own craft. (Unless we're writing certain kinds of instruction manuals, I suppose.) But "back to basics" is a great motto generally, I find. For meditation: back to the basics of breathing in and out. For writing: find a character and a conflict. For a to-do list that's too long: pick the first thing, and do one at a time. 

In writing and life, it's easy to get lost in the weeds, to try to bluff our way through what we don't know, to take on more and more before we're ready. It's okay--sometimes necessary--to return to Step 1, to focus on a solid foundation, to keep it simple.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Idle moments

People check phones all the time now: At red lights. On commuter-train platforms. In the elevator. While walking down the street.

And all these little stray bits of time are when we used to zone out, stare at what was around us, check our mental to-do lists, mull over what happened at work, or count the days until vacation. Sometimes we daydreamed, and sometimes we eavesdropped on conversations around us.

I wonder if we've lost anything valuable in filling those idle random moments. I've long been a big proponent of the idea that daydreaming, rest, and zoning out are a neecessary part of a creative life, and a healthy life in general. I believe the mind needs time to wander. I've also long been resistant to the notion that we have to be outwardly productive every second.

Maybe I'm wrong, and these idle moments serve no real purpose. But I've been making a conscious effort to go with them when they crop up. To look around me, rather than constantly busying myself. I can't point to a quantifiable output resulting from these moments, but I feel the need to just let them happen.