Put the Inner Critic Out

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Here’s a fun little experiment for those who struggle with the inner critic.  Try kicking her out and letting her sit on your desk.  Then you can talk back to her when the writing is happening.

My little hag is named Finnola, inspired by a character in Catherine Cooper’s The Golden Acorn.  I made her for a children’s book club gathering in the woods.  Once all the children found her hiding place, I took her home.  In between moon time, where she might sit on my nightstand…she works in my writing space.  I wonder how chatty she will be when I sit back down to work?

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Finding what you’re resisting is the key to opening the barrier of writer’s block.

I suffer from writer’s block because I am resistant.  In a strange way, I feel compelled and simultaneously repelled from writing my stories.

I believe on some level I am called to write, but just like Jonah and the Whale, I want to hide from it.

Just about five minutes ago, I realized exactly what is causing my resistance.

It’s conformity.

The pressure to conform in my writing is even stronger than the pressure to conform in my relationships, because writing seems to have a more permanent, powerful impact.  Spoken words can fly into the atmosphere and be lost to the memory.  Words texted, typed and handwritten often stay a while longer.

In my memoir, a story that now has a real name and several workable chapters, I’m uncovering the myth of my performance as a virtuous, approval-worthy woman to find the human struggling under the weight of dogma, familial expectation, gender expectations and cultural norms.  It is difficult to write not because I am trying to remember what exactly happened to me the year I lived as a single mother, but because I’m afraid to claim that I am filled with passion, desire and rebellion.  These are things that as a woman and a mother I have been told to put away or to never acknowledge.

So now it has become complicated and tedious to unpack the truth.  Yet as I learn to recognize the influence of standard ways of being that make me afraid to write what might be harshly judged, I will work with the oppression as if it is a weight machine at the gym.

Terrain

terrain_nBack country hiking is my husband’s passion.  So to celebrate our anniversary six years ago, he took me into the wilds of the Shenandoah, to hike a series of circular trails near and crossing over the Appalachian Trail.  It was the trip of a lifetime.  Unused as I was to carrying a fully loaded backpack and my new hiking boots, I struggled on the rocky inclines, especially the ankle busting terrain on Brown Mountain.

But what made that trip memorable was our repeated encounters with black bears.  Seventeen sightings in four days–although some of those might have been the same bears making their rounds in the wild blueberry bushes.

Now, most people would love that experience, as did my husband.  What a rare gift to be that close to unpredictable, furry, breathing, grunting nature.  And that each bear didn’t seem to mind us while they grazed on berries and turned over logs for bugs should have set my racing heart to rest.  After all, berries are tastier than sweaty me.

In my overactive imagination, I envisioned charging that ended in mauling.  Gore.  Paws the size of dinner plates with razor claws.  Teeth that ripped flesh, leaving hamburger like bodies.

It probably didn’t help that I failed to educate myself about black bears before going hiking.  I didn’t understand that black bears are not like Grizzlies, nor like the violent creatures of mythical fame.  With each encounter, my adrenaline surged and panic rose.  I begged to leave on the fourth day, asking my husband to please call a ranger to escort us out.  That was the day I went to use the little out house and a mother bear showed up with her cub.

But even being several yards next to a mother bear wasn’t enough to defeat my Richard.  He was very disappointed that I didn’t see our trip as an adventure to remember, but a trauma to overcome.

Since then, I’ve taken the time to educate myself about the nature of black bears.  I’ve taken short hikes to expose myself to the feeling of being vulnerable.  With each trip that ended in success, my confidence grew.

It took six years for me to be able to hike in bear country without jangling nerves.  I even saw this:

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Her name is Flower, and she lives on Grandfather Mountain.  She is in captivity.  But what I noticed was the difference in the size of her paws compared to the size of a bear paw in my imagination.

What was I so afraid of?

The truth is that wilderness back country hikes are challenging not because of bears.  I learned that my fear has everything to do with my vivid imagination that supplies me with a stream of dramatic, worst case scenarios.  It’s not that I fear the bears, but the idea of what it would mean to be seriously injured or die a violent death on the trail.  It’s so unlikely for this to happen, but it is an idea that persists.

So, I was celebrating in my heart with the freedom that comes with hiking unperturbed by fear.  I had a handle on my bear-scare and all seemed well.  There were waterfalls to enjoy, cool breezes, quiet peace.

Then one day on a particularly steep hike down to the river, Elliot, ever curious and full of adventure, decided to turn over a large rock. Richard saw that as a “teachable” moment, and described in detail what would happen if he turned over another rock and was bitten by a rattle snake.  How he would have to carry him up this terrain so rocky and full of roots.  And how that was a potentially deadly situation, especially since he was not carrying our first aid kit.

And I know this was an important lesson.  But all of that drama played out in my head, giving me surges of anxiety. With the idea that I could lose my beautiful boy in a random encounter with a snake, I was no longer having any fun at all.  I was reminded that anything can happen on the trail.  I remembered the story of one man who went hiking by himself in the mountains, slipped on a river crossing and broke both of his ankles.  Four days later, some college students found him hobbling with the aid of two crutches he had fashioned from long sticks.

What if it was a simple fall that turned a summer day in the mountains to a near death experience?  Some of these hikes are treacherous.  People fall from cliffs every year.  In other cases, hikers are lost and have to be rescued by search parties.  It’s not the kind of place to vacation if you don’t enjoy a challenge.

Which I do, at least physically.

It’s the terrain of the mind that is the hardest to hike.

Circus Animals

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As a child I would imagine that I was as small as this gnome, able to escape from the trouble and stress of home. This urge still lives within me now.

For nearly all my life, I’ve been confused about my true calling.  The higher purpose that would bring me to a career.  Mid life is here with it’s graying and thinning hair, wrinkles, and weight gain.  What am I?  What do I?

Perhaps, a composite rock.

A teeming river of aquatic life.

A mystery.

A ring leader.

A side show freak.

All in one.

Some say the obstacles are our teachers.

So this week, I went to my teachers and faced them all.  Drawing away from compulsive habits, seeking the still small voice.  The space of quiet like a pool of clear water beyond thought.  A silent confidence that everything is always currently okay, even if a storm of

cat pee is raining

a husband is raging

a child is crying.

So a pattern emerges in the way the waves are breaking on my shore.  A chronic illness I’ve been treating with diet alone now requires a befuddling management of stress.

It must be all in the means.  The way I’ve wanted more, and needed less.  The way I’ve cared about things I cannot afford to care about.

What do I?

Apparatus

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I am eight and it is the summer like every summer

when we vacation at the river up north, where my uncle keeps a log cabin.

It is on this river

I learn to water ski behind his red boat that roars to life, the sound

I recall now when someone driving a sports car beats the light at the corner.

It is this roar that raises me from the deep to glide on the surface at a speed that turns

hair into a thousand little whips.

Back at the rectangle of sand that meets the water at the cabin, we are allowed to swim unsupervised,

(there’s just too much work to be done in the kitchen, to feed this hungry crowd.)

So instead of a parent to save me from drowning, I am burdened by a red life vest that chokes my neck and pushes up on my ears.

I also wear a pink rubber nose plug with a strap

that pulls my hair and prevents me from that burning sensation of water in nostrils.

Add to that, some white wax stuck in my ears.

I lay on a black inner tube, barely experiencing the water.

The natural scent of aquatic life now muted.

I am forty four.

Still plugging my nose in the local pool

when all around me, toddlers and preschoolers are putting their faces in the water

and smiling.

Perhaps all these years I still wear the apparatus, invisible, but still affecting how I swim.

So I decide.

To place my face fully in the water

no matter if it burns and I drown.

And it’s the easiest thing in the world,

to hold one’s breath in the water, with two hands free for swimming.

What is it that keeps the water out

This mystical invisible force

Of my breath held.

And is it possible to make an invisible barrier that bars entrance

to what I don’t want to come into my heart,

the things that burn on inhalation, filling lungs and sending me to the darkest deep

where I lay on the bottom and let the carp pick my bones clean.

How I’m feeling on the eve of the rescheduled critique session.

I just listened to a great podcast on Dear Sugar radio with Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond about how to survive the critics.  The full episode is available here:

http://www.wbur.org/2015/03/13/dear-sugar-episode-six

I really appreciated the knowledge that after a while, the hurt feelings subside, and you kind of go back to feeling normal.  After my challenging week in a debate with an editor, I am finding relief and getting back to a good place.  I feel lighter inside, and I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that I’ve started spring cleaning.  I’m on day three and feeling light of heart.

I’m starting to contemplate the idea that criticism is kind of like accepting a bag of used clothing.  At one level, all of the items reflect someone’s past choices.  In the entire bag, there may be one piece you really love, making it sort of worth the effort to accept and live with the rest, or make the effort to pass.  But in order to go forward independently and with your own beautiful mind, you must at some point stop accepting the entire bag and say to yourself “I can clothe my own bones.”

I’ve always had trouble being a “pleaser”.  So this is a challenge for me not to accept everything.

This idea is also helpful because I’m participating in critiquing other’s work too.  It reminds me to give away more good items and fold away what is unusable, to discard what isn’t helpful.  Namely, judgement about the person who has worked to write their piece.

The Beautiful Now

When I wrote a sensitive and painful experience for my first chapter, I dared to press “send” and share it with the complete strangers of a critique group.  I thought it was brave and worth doing because of the challenge.  And in my frustration with a suggestion that some of my piece suggests I’m an “unintentional unreliable narrator” I sort of came unglued.  Anger and defensiveness ruled my days, wasting more of my energy that I need for taking care of our home education, my business and my relationship with a grieving spouse.

It was pointless and wasteful to be so upset.

I felt caught in a trap, tangled in a power play, the victim of a senseless intimidation game.

And all of a sudden, the story that came marching out of my heart crept back inside the tortoise shell where I lost the threads of the narrative.  I gave away my powerful writing momentum because I was hopeful about the experience of social connection during the writing process.

Nothing is worth letting the writing die, no matter how educated, insightful, harsh or off base the critique may be.  I don’t even know yet what specific words, phrases, lines or paragraphs are causing this response.  So all of it is senseless to me.  I was hopeful for a supportive community, but I’m just now thinking that I may need more time to develop the actual narrative without concern for how it’s written.  Maybe the critique part only needs to happen after the entire story is complete.

But is that just the perfect out for me, an excuse to avoid the discomfort?  I’m not sure.

What I do know is that when you’re struggling with a difficult, uncomfortable situation, salvation lies in the beautiful now –where the story of the past is put away and the expectation of the future is silent.

Here in the present moment, we are given sunlight sparkling on a lake in spring with the sound of insistent crows overhead, a sound that feels like the drumbeat of ‘warning! warning! warning!’ to all who travel in the trees.

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In this moment, my beautiful son.

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And the moment when we notice brilliant moss at the base of a towering pine that makes us think of the Emerald City of Oz, in miniature.

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The beautiful now when spring is just beginning, when you can still see everything in the woods.  When it’s not too heavy with humidity, when walking feels like lightness and freedom and active presence in your life.

Nature cures my insane need to express my worry.  It is so quiet and accepting of the animal that is me.

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There’s another language to be found in the clinging fungus, a language that has no words but speaks to me with patient, delicate growth.  These mushrooms are not as temporary as spring blooms, bursting in color and dropping in a week.  They don’t attract the bees and butterflies.  They grow on dead logs, finding valuable nutrients on decay.

In the beautiful now, I find comfort in their existence.  And that is enough to go on.