10 November 2008

How do you free yourself?

In many ways, this NaNoWriMo season is a culmination of a long and slow climb toward self-awareness and freedom (in the broadest sense of the term).

Once upon a time, I knew that I wanted to be a writer (since grade three, in fact, thanks very much, Mrs. Cooper, for liking my story about the duck).

And then I decided I had to have some way to make money, some kind of a title, some kind of a place in the world, a job. But the world of literature kept calling out to me, and I decided that a reasonable compromise would be academia. Ten years ago I went back to school for a Master's degree in English literature, and I really loved it. When you're doing degree studies, it's neat because you have more coaching on your writing than you ever will in any other circumstance. It seems like an ideal scenario, really, because you can read all the time and write about what you're reading. And there is an art to the academic essay, whatever people say about how incomprehensible academic writing can be (and oh, it can be ornery stuff).

I finished my PhD three years ago. As I began to go on interviews, though, I began to feel really sick in my heart. I'm sure it showed: the interviews were mostly terrible and even the ones I enjoyed, I ended up with a bad feeling about. I didn't get any job offers. It seemed I had stalled out. I decided not to continue.

That's the superficial level of what went on. But the real story isn't about how I failed at the job market (and oh, I did fail. Sarah Palin's interviews looked pretty good compared to some of the answers I gave). While I was doing all that flunking out career-wise, I was slowly building up my resources elsewhere.

While to the outside world I was working toward my PhD and earning fabulous scholarships and shaping up to be the next bright thing, I was also performing acts of creative espionage. I was having a little bit too much fun. I was spoiling myself for the austere life of a professor:

I read novels that weren't on my reading list. I attended a conference outside of my area of study, but on the topic of one of my favourite horror films, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 film starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee). I wrote a short story and sent it out to a good magazine. It didn't get published, but I got a nice note back from the editor about how it was an "almost". I enjoyed my area of study a little too much. Some of my research sent me into a giddy bouts of raucous creativity, as I imagined ways to spin what I was learning into a fabulous novel about plague and zombies and vampires and Shakespeare. (This is the novel I'm beginning with NaNoWriMo this year.)

Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole I went: I meditated a lot. I chanted. I did tai chi. I opened my mind way, waaay up. I listened to some pretty weird shit. I did Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way course - twice. I still faithfully write morning pages every day.

It wasn't all nice. I suffered through a mid-degree nervous breakdown. I had panic attacks that were pretty scary. I cried a lot of tears. I felt a lot of distress. I did a lot of therapy. I did a lot more tai chi. I meditated. I chanted. I went for long walks in the woods.

Finally, I recognized that the academic world didn't acknowledge or allow for most of the things that rocked my boat. I wished it did. I wished the job market had been better. I wished that being a professor didn't entail sacrificing everything else. And then I decided that the only thing to do was to face the truth. To acknowledge my truth.

So I quit. About a year ago, I had to decide whether to go on the market again or not. I decided not to. I still say the degree was worth it: I have mad research skills now, and I can read just about anything that's written in just about any sort of English. It took me a year to extract myself from the contract work I was doing. Thanks to my ridiculously supportive partner, I'm taking this time to build a fiction portfolio.

At thirty-seven, I decided to begin again. At thirty-eight, I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. I'm doing it in relative poverty, mind you, and I'm doing it with a lot of consciousness that I will eventually need to find a way to bring some dollars in. I'm doing it with a healthy heap of guilt, reinforced by our culture at large, that I'm not being "productive". But I'm also doing it with the understanding that doing the PhD was a lot harder than what I'm proposing to do now.

Sell some stories? Way easier than selling out.

This is not to diss the academy altogether. There are a lot of people there, people I consider to be great friends, who are genuinely and deeply invested in expanding knowledge and educating students. But they're working under a sick administration, and the resources they need to do their jobs well are simply not there. The support for a true diversity of opinion is not there. And in English departments everywhere, there are a lot of people who would much rather be writers. Who ache to create, and who are instead looking longingly and lovingly at the work of others, and trying, sometimes even patiently, to explain to undergraduates why creative work is important. But it's a hard place to be. And I don't want to sacrifice myself any more.

My suggestion? If you're reading this, do something creative today. Pick up a paint brush, get your hands on some clay or some plasticene, or write a little poem, play a little music. It might feel silly. Do it anyway.

Chant "om". If that starts to feel good, go for "omanepadmeom". It will open your heart.

Find a good teacher who will show you how to meditate. Stretch a little. Go for a walk. Talk to an animal. Adopt an animal.

Anything to get a wedge into your routine, especially your routine channels of thought.

Open the floodgates, just a crack, so that a trickle of fresh, clear water can run into your life.

And don't forget to ask if you're doing what you really want to do. It's the most important question you can ask yourself. And you might want to ask it over and over again, until the answer is a resounding YES!


Elizabeth Staley said...

I really, really needed this right now. Thank you so much- you've inspired me. :)

Elizabeth Twist said...

Hey, you're welcome. Via NaNoWrimo forums, I was recently admiring your etsy shop. Very cool art cards and buttons and stuff!