07 November 2012

Resurrrrection Blogfest: How Do You Free Yourself?

Woof! That first year of blogging, yikes. Like probably everybody, I have found the act of going back through my archive just a touch awkward. Don't get me wrong: there are triumphs in that first year. I still think my first attempt to blog NaNoWriMo is awesome - way more awesome than the resulting novel draft was. 

After reading my first year archive through my fingers, I chose something for the Resurrection Blogfest that I wrote during November 2008, less than a month after I started this blog. In my opinion, there are some cringe-worthy aspects to this post. I no longer like discussing writing and craft from a "let me tell you how it is" perspective. I know now that I'm not qualified to interrogate anybody else's creative activities, so I tend not to try, though I am still into exploring my own choices from time to time in this space. I picked this post because it offers a terrific snapshot into where I was when I first embraced the idea that I needed to make writing a major focus. I remember that confusion. I remember how terrifying it was to powersteer myself out of the life track I'd chosen and into a whole other place. I remember being scared that I couldn't do it. 

Four years later, I'm in a great place as far as writing goes. I've been able to make it a major focus. It doesn't feel risky any more. It feels like what I do. It is great, however, to revisit the process that brought me here. 

Without further ado, I give you November 10, 2008's post, entitled "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!


Cherie Reich said...

Aww! Such a great look back! I'm glad you decided not to shove creativity aside. :)

Deborah Walker said...

What a fascinating blog fest. I love it. I'm glad you chose this path, Elizabeth. It's good to have you walking alongside.

L.G. Keltner said...

This was great! Right now I'm meandering my way through creative poverty, hoping to come out on the other side more confident and true to myself. People often look at me as unproductive, but all I really want to do for a living is write. So let's hope I can make a living out of it.

Thanks for sharing this!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Bravo, Elizabeth! Great post. I hear you, especially regarding the not feeling "productive" according to society.

One of the things I learned awhile ago was that it's easier to assess a lot of other careers in terms of the steps needed to achieve "success" - progress is measured in classes or degrees or promotions etc. In fiction writing, there is no clear path - we have to make our own. :)

Wayne Assiratti said...

Hi Elizabeth. While reading your post I started to think about what I really want to do, and that is be creative as much as humanly possible. I'll say unfortunately now, but that isn't the right word, I'll find another once I have pressed "post", Unfortunately, I have a wife, two kids, a house, a cat and two cars to pay for, fix and feed, so being creative all the time is always challenging.

Your post is inspiring though and makes me more resolute. I have been working on a novel that I am posting on my blog, which hasn't had a new part for three months and I know that it's starting to get a bit "too far away" to work on more. I resolve to have a crack at it this week and at least do 500 words. Who knows, It might be readable!

Yours was a great post. Thanks,


JoJo said...

Great post! I never could meditate but I do lots of crafts.

Georgina Morales said...

I'm loving this blogfest! So glad you chose this path. Creative writing is such an amazing career. I thank my lucky stars everyday. Thanks for sharing!

David Macaulay said...

This is a great post Elizabeth. Academia is strangely seductive but a lot of people I know who are in it are disillusioned. Glad you are doing what you want to do. The Wicker Man is such an awesome cult movie BTW

StratPlayerCJF said...

Great resurrected post! Being creative is a natural part of being alive -- even when we're doing "nothing" we're creating CO2 from oxygen, energy from food, thought from electrical impulses, and images from light waves bouncing off our corneas.

I salute your commitment to creativity and to writing and I wish you tremendously great things!

Laura Eno said...

I don't think there's anything cringeworthy to this post! You're encouraging people to seek creativity - not telling them how. :)

Mina Lobo said...

I can TOTALLY relate to giving bad answers at job interviews. One memory, in particular, makes me cringe so much, I'm afraid I'll freeze into that cringey pose for good.

Anyway, kudos to you for doing what's right for *you* and not society at large. Screw society. Screw it sideways. (She said elegantly.)

Thanks for participating in my blogfest!
Some Dark Romantic

Al Penwasser said...

To write gooder, you have to keep at it.
"Gooder"? Aw, crap. Guess I should keep writing more.

Catherine Stine said...

I wholeheartedly applaud your amazing post! And I agree with every word of it. I have lived the creative life for years, and happy for it.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Wow, you all are the best. I have the best people dropping in here! I'm feeling awesome about the word count I'm laying down right now. Off to do more... Happy writing, everybody, and thanks, Mina, for such a great blogfest idea.

Jolie du Pre said...

Hello! My dad is a famous sociologist, and he's at the top of his game, but that world is hard and not for everyone. I'm proud to say that although he's a highly respected Harvard professor, he fully supports my creative endeavors and he's one of my biggest fans. He never turns his nose up at what I want to do. (Only people who lack self-esteem do that.) I'm glad you found your true path. I was in law school for a year and a half, but I hated law. So I quit. I don't regret not becoming a lawyer. I'm glad I'm a writer. As far as bringing more money into your pocket, you can try writing articles. I write articles and write fiction, and that allows me to be a full-time writer. (Although my goal is to become a full-time fiction writer.)

Zombie Blog Hop on December 7

Trisha said...

I'm a bit of a cheater, I guess - an artist who also has a full time job that isn't artistic at all. ;) But I guess being a librarian is kind of arty in some way.

JoJo said...

Congratulations on your honorable mention win from Mina! :)

Tamara said...

Hi! Great post. Thanks for sharing. Congrats on the honorable mention--glad I found your blog through Mina. I'm a new follower. It's nice to meet you. :)