Excited to be named a Dime Stories Standout for my modern flash fiction take on Eleanor Rigby.
New Year’s Day is one of my favorite days of the year. It is the ultimate of new beginnings. It ripples with possibility and glimmers with hope. It’s the sun setting on water, all long-golden shadows, a honeyed promise that reaches from the edge of the horizon towards the tips of your toes. A warm, clear path towards your dreams.
Part of the allure is that January 1st is not just about welcoming in the new, it’s also a day of releasing the old. 2018 brought so many challenges. Lots of beginnings and wonderful successes but some extraordinarily painful endings.
I am convinced that one of the lessons I’m meant to learn in this lifetime is to learn to let go. Gracefully. Consciously. With love, patience, and peace. Each time I’m called to let go – of a person, a relationship, or even an idea – like who I think I “should” be, it’s gotten easier by the slimmest of degrees. I’m getting better at recognizing the clenching in my belly for what it really is – anxiety, sadness, and fear.
In my efforts to let go, I’ve not only learned to recognize fear but to sit with it. I used to see fear and twist away from it. Run. But fear will chase you. So learning to sit with it, without losing my breath, without drowning in it, has been a difficult but helpful exercise. I’ve found that each time I sit with it, it shrinks, from the size of a mountain to a hillside, something I can tackle one step at a time. Hopefully at some point, fear will be a rock that I can carry in my pocket that serves to keep me grounded but doesn’t prevent me from taking action – from moving forward or letting go.
This past year I also learned the power of hope. How that glimmer can bring you through the darkest of days. And also the extraordinary depth of friendship when you run out of your own hope and your friends and colleagues come light it for you again and help to lead you out of your own darkness.
I think that’s one of the things I love most about the first day of the year. The glimmer of untapped potential. Dreams and wishes are born. There’s no bitterness of defeat, no ragged edges of rejection. There is only the rosy-cheeked freshness of a new year. Of new beginnings. Of mystery and magic. Not just for me, but for what feels like the whole world. The sweet breath of collective hope that floats lightly on the air, so cold and sweet that you want to gulp and hold in your lungs until you burst.
As part of this recognition of possibility, my friend Tia picks a word or phrase for each new year (a color and spirit animal too, and she will be leading a workshop on this soon and it’s incredible). A theme or intention. I struggled for days with what my word for 2019 should be. Magic? Possibility? Fun? Yes to all of those, but none were quite right. I realized for me this year is about exploring of what it’s like to let go of limits. Limits I’ve set for myself on what I’m capable of accomplishing, professionally, personally, spiritually. Of who I should be, of the roles I play at work, in friendship or relationship, in my community. Of who and what defines me. What if I unleashed my potential? What if I approached each day as though I were capable of anything I could imagine? And so my plan for 2019 was born. Push my own boundaries. Jump off the cliff. Try to live my life without limits. Wish me luck. 🙂
Wishing all of you a year of limitless possibility. Of love and laughter, of deep friendships, and lingering sunsets, of adventure and exploration, of peace and joy, and mostly, of hope.
This morning’s news about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide rocked me. The second American icon we’ve lost in a week. Many of us have been hit hard by his loss, even more difficult than the loss of Kate Spade, likely because we could see and hear him. He took us as a guide to different places in the world and encouraged us to go different places within ourselves.
I think what frustrates me and saddens me at the same time is the continued stigma around suicide and depression. The grotesque curiosity with which the press reports the very intimate details of a woman’s suicide note meant only for the eyes of her husband and daughter. All of the whispers of “Well, you know alcohol may have been involved” or “She has a long history of depression.” And while sometimes that seems like a way in which people are trying to make sense of the loss, it also often seems like a judgment. Less about “I wish I had seen the signs” and more like gossip exchanged at the water cooler at work.
Millions of people suffer or have suffered from depression or anxiety or both. I am one of them. The version that most of us project is a very pulled together, happy, façade. It doesn’t matter that we have the “perfect” whatever, family, job, body, friends, life.
For those of you that have never experienced a serious depression, I understand how baffling it can seem – “What could possibly be so bad in his/her life?” It often doesn’t make sense to the person experiencing it. They are aware of the good things they have in their life and despite all of that, they still have this darkness that descends on them. It makes the depression all the more harrowing and is often used as a confirmation of how “broken” they are in their own minds. The stigma of the depression label prevents them from expressing how they feel to others and leaves them feeling even more isolated.
For those of you that have experienced anxiety or depression, you’re not alone. Know that there are people that love you fiercely. Know that people will miss you terribly and would do anything not to lose you. Know that there is always another option besides suicide. Suicide is not the perfect answer. There is help available. From me. From friends and family. From suicide hotlines. My heart breaks for the Spade and Bourdain family and friends. I think the more we are open and honest about discussing mental health issues, removing the stigma from it, and working towards supporting one another, the better off all of us will be.
Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? Scientific American describes it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
It’s most commonly associated with the workplace, but as writers, I’d argue it’s just as prevalent, if not more so, in the arts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer and thought to myself, “Who am I kidding? I’m not a writer,” while I squished around in my self-doubt.
Valerie Young, an expert on the subject of imposter syndrome, identified five imposter subgroups. She created them to apply to the work persona, but I think each of these rings true for writers. I’ve created the writer version of each subgroup below. Which one of these do you associate with?
You can never complete a piece because you can’t decide whether or not to keep a comma in the third sentence. Comma in. Comma out. Comma in. Comma out. Taps fingers on desk. Looks up comma usage for the fourth time online. Comma in. Comma out.
We all want our work to be the best it can be. If you’re on your 9th draft, go ahead and fight with that comma. If in you’re in your first few, here’s what you should imagine: a loud voice coming from the Universe who says, “No one f*&^ing cares about your comma. Finish the damn piece and get on with it. And by the way, I think you’re amazing. Clooney would have totally married you if he hadn’t meet Amal.” Your Universe voice may close that conversation differently than mine, but you get the idea.
Convinced you’re a phony among your writing peers? You decide to overcome it by sheer grit. You spend hours grinding out content and leave claw marks on your desk whenever anyone tries to pull you away for anything other the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Will Smith tells a story about persistence, “But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”
No one wants to pry your cold, dead hands from your keyboard. While writing is important, so are your family and friends. Your pets. Life outside of the screen and keyboard. Your book will be there when you get back. It won’t run away. So chill out. Do something fun. Your life away from the page will make the lives you create on the page that much richer.
The Natural Genius
The natural genius, according to Young, bases their success on their abilities and not on their efforts. It’s the opposite of Superwoman. So let’s say you go to your read and critique group. There’s one member who always brings beautiful work, week after week. You look at her work. You look at your own. The doubt creeps in. You look down at your first draft and picture the flies circling it because it suddenly looks like a pile of shit.
I’ve written before about the fact that first drafts are always crappy – but crappy with a cape. Too often we look around at beautiful pieces of work and compare our writing, negatively, to the talent we see on the page. In some cases, it’s because we haven’t been behind that writer’s curtain to watch them wrestle with their words. Or to see them completely overhaul four different drafts of the same piece before we see it in group. Other writers simply have more mastery. I read “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs and was so awed; I almost hucked my manuscript in the trash. Better to use other people’s writing as a guide and a learning tool, not as a way to discredit your own work.
You have no idea how to fix your character arc that isn’t quite arcing, but you just sit at your desk by the hour. Staring at the screen. At your dog. At the squirrel outside your window. You’re past the point of working it out on your own, because you’re too close to it. But there you sit. Not asking for help. Because then people would know that you’re not a “real writer” because a “real writer” would know how to fix the issue.
I have three words of advice. Get. Over. Yourself. There is not one person on this planet that has all the answers. Not one. And yes, there is glory and valor and satisfaction in working stuff out on your own, but sometimes, you’re just wasting your own valuable writing time. Ask a writer friend. Post in a forum. Do anything but know you don’t have to go it alone.
You feel like you’ve tricked your read and critique group leader into accepting you. You think your story won an award based on sheer luck. You obsess about the fact you don’t have an MFA, or that you started writing later in life, or that you haven’t ever taken a formal writing class. You wonder if everyone can tell you don’t have all the writing credentials you “should” have.
Yes, more experience is always helpful. We should all aspire to be lifetime learners. But you know who changed the course of history without having all the fancy titles and degrees? Abe Lincoln. Anne Frank. Susan B. Anthony. Bill Gates. Plenty of famous writers who never studied writing. Harper Lee. Kurt Vonnegut. JK Rowling. Barbara Kingsolver.
All of us feel like imposters some time. Even writers who have been at this for most of their lives. So the next time you hear that voice in your mind, your inner critic telling you you’re not good enough, that you really are an imposter, take a deep breath. Settle into your writing chair. Tell your critic to shut his or her pie hole. And write.
I swore to myself I’d get my manuscript done in 2017. It didn’t happen. I could talk for hours about all the legitimate reasons it didn’t happen. I could talk for even longer about all the ways in which I procrastinated and avoided it. Does it make logical sense why I chose to avoid something I care so much? Yes and no. It about would take thousands of words and hundreds of dollars in therapist fees to explain it.
Focusing on 2018, I was determined. It helped that I landed a full time job that starts at the end of February. It also helped that based on some personal circumstances, I realized it the manuscript needed to be finished. It was now or never.
My manuscript is a memoir. It’s based on my journey through the fertility process. It details a year and a half of my mid-30’s, where the life I’d imagined for myself faded to black. I had been pregnant with twins. But five days after I became pregnant, I lost my mother to cancer after a lifetime of addiction. The following week I lost the twins. And nine months later, as I twisted the sterile bed sheets in my hands, I listened to my doctor tell me I would never be able to have children.
It’s a survival story about losing a past and a future at that same time–and learning to carve out a present much different than the one I expected for myself. Those were dark days. The harder I held on to the life I thought I should be leading, the more painful everything else was. But as soon as I pushed off from the ledge, trusting that whatever I fell into was going to be okay, I was free.
It’s about learning to let go.
After such loss, it’s hard not to build up callouses of control again. They start innocently enough with the little things. A set of activities, a diet to follow, a daily routine. But as time passes, it becomes less of a routine and more of a schedule. The control creeps in a bit more and it morphs your discipline into fear.
Writing is not so different.
Let’s say you’re starting a new project and you’re not quite sure what it is yet. If you’re not a “pantser” then you want to start with a rough outline. Just a general overview of what you want to write.
It’s easier to write around things. You can write extraordinarily detailed outlines with plot points and character arcs and detailed scenery. You can research and read for hours about how other writers have worked through their pieces, look at maps on structure and complete case studies of manuscripts that you love. You can build the most beautiful scaffolding to support the building of your dream word house. All of this to try and control your fear about sitting down in front of a project with zero words written. But at one point, you need rip down the scaffolding. You need to hang by your fingertips, in all the discomfort, in all of the pain, in all of the not knowing and write just what you see right in front of your face. You need to let go.
Writing does not like to be controlled. So despite your disciplined character sketches and your sweeping vistas of scene setting, your outline that you’ve so carefully crafted, it does what it wants.
When your writing is shoved into a narrow hallway, it will read that way. Your characters will seem like they’re tight and brittle and they’ll move through your carefully constructed scenes as if they were made out of matchsticks.
If you’re working on memoir or non-fiction, your readers will see right through your efforts of control. To quote Natalie Goldberg’s Rules of Writing,” Go for the real stuff. If you don’t, your writing will be tiptoeing nervously around whatever your real stuff is. You won’t believe it and neither will your readers.”
Whether you’re writing a first draft, editing, or putting on the final touches, it’s important to let go. Get words on a page, kill your darlings, do whatever you need to do to move your writing forward.
I realized that to finish the manuscript, the lesson for me is no different than it was in my mid-30’s—I need to let go. As Buddha once said, “You only lose what you cling to.”
My New Narrative
“Hi, I’m Danielle. I work in new business and strategy,” I would say, balancing my tiny spear of swedish meatballs in one hand while I extended the other at a networking event. The person I was introducing myself to would nod, acknowledging my role, recognizing the large company I worked for. We’d sip cheap red wine and talk about our industry. I felt confident in my place in the world and in my “story” as a corporate executive.
I never introduced myself as a writer. It was a subplot to the “story of Danielle,” written into casual conversations about hobbies, somewhere between “brussels sprouts connoisseur” and “die-hard dog person.”
Two weeks ago, I attended a small business expo. This would be my first time introducing myself as a writer in a professional setting. I felt shaky, worried that as I uttered the words, someone might laugh. They might tilt their head, the way my dog Nala does when she hears a sound she doesn’t recognize. Would people recognize me as a writer when it was hard enough for me to recognize myself?
Fear pushed aside, I pulled my shoulders back and for several hours of networking, introduced myself as a writer. Generally speaking, I heard these three responses over the course of the event:
- “Ohhhhh, that’s interesting,” they’d say, eyes sweeping the horizon for an escape route, looking as though they’ve just swallowed a live chicken. As we continued our conversation in halting phrases, one of their body parts would begin to bounce or twitch. They’d see “someone they know” at the farthest corner of the room, and were gone so fast I was surprised they didn’t leave smoke trails.
- “That’s so cool, I write too! I’ve got a great idea for a book, it’s about this guy who’s a sloth keeper on a frozen planet…(fast forward several minutes) do you do any ghostwriting?” Their eyes bright and I’d smile, mentally taking inventory of my own partially edited manuscript, all my unwritten blogs posts, the deadline for an article, which I was now counting down in hours instead of days. Our conversation would pitter-patter back and forth until they realized I’m not really going to write their book for them and then they’re off to refill their drink.
- “Interesting. What kind of writing do you do and what are you currently working on?” A book person, I’d think to myself, thank you, Jesus. I’d list the different types of freelance projects I have in the works and mention I’m in the process of editing my manuscript.
“What type of manuscript? Fiction?” they’d ask.
“No, memoir actually,” I’d say.
Here is where the conversation would hit a pivotal moment and I’d watch them curiously, knowing our casual chatter would abruptly end or shift to a deeper level of dialogue.
If it started with an awkward silence, then I knew the rest of the conversation was going to flop around like a dying fish on a dock. They would avoid asking me any questions about my project or joke about how I’m neither old enough nor have the life experience to write a memoir. I’d laugh and ask them a question about their line of work, watching the worry lines between their eyebrows soften, and knew the conversation was not veering anywhere near writing again – not memoir, not freelance writing, not writing of any kind.
Those that were brave maintained eye contact and asked me what my memoir is about. So when I’d tell them it is a story about motherhood, about my journey through the fertility process while losing my mom to cancer, I’d carefully watch their face, high fiving them in my mind for hanging on for the ride. To a man (or woman), they’d smile and I’d let out the breath I was holding in. Then we’d talk about the challenge they’d had having kids or about how hard it is when your parents are aging, or about writing, or something else entirely. These were the folks that asked me for my business card and the ones I collected in return.
This was a chance for me to learn how to tell my new narrative. Without fear. Without judgment. And while it may take me some time to get used to it too, I like this new story and I’m excited to tell it.
I no longer wish to understand what “active shooter” means. I don’t want to know the difference between semi-automatic and automatic weapons. I have no desire to know how many rounds are in a magazine.
I no longer wish to understand your desire to protect your second amendment rights above the lives of your fellow Americans. I am not interested in your diversionary tactics, your smug analogies of blaming the car and not the driver for DUIs. I am tired of your constant question dodging when I ask things like, “Why would a regular civilian need to carry an assault rifle or a machine gun,” or “What’s the problem with adding additional steps to the gun purchasing process?”
You will tell me that overall crime rates are down in the past several years. It doesn’t matter that our homicide by firearms rates are almost four times higher than the next closest country on the list. You’ll say that restricting certain gun purchases won’t keep them off the black market, even though logic would argue restriction is a natural deterrent. You will blame mental illness (at the same time supporting a congressman that wants to remove funding from federal mental health programs). You’ll be unable to answer why you support border walls and travel bans to protect our country from international terrorism but stand silently by while our country is torn apart by domestic terrorism. You’ll say you don’t want to politicize the tragedy, sending your thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, buying yourself more time and emotional distance before you refuse to engage in discussions about gun control. Because 1500 mass shootings in five years isn’t a pattern in your mind. It’s not something fixed by gun control. You’ll point to Chicago, erroneously claiming that they have the strictest gun control laws in the country and the highest homicide rates. Those “strict rules” have been laid bare by NRA lobbying, no longer requiring citizens to have permits or register their weapons, and in 2013, allowing them concealed carry. But New York City, with stricter gun control laws and homicide numbers trending to historic lows, doesn’t fit your narrative. You will use a hashtag like #Imwiththenra.You may bring up the car analogy again. I will remind you that cars are not designed for the purpose of killing people. That I am tired of your empty condolences and of your loyalty to a piece of metal over flesh and blood.
I no longer wish to understand what you think about the initial constructs of the second amendment. I no longer wish to understand your opinions, theories, and arguments about your right to bear arms. I am tired of listening to you spout off NRA sound bytes as if they were your own, tired of defining faith in our country in absolute terms by an outdated ideology focused on owning weapons. I am tired of listening to you defend a killing machine instead of the people it kills.
I refuse to defend an object responsible for so much death and destruction, and quite frankly, I can’t understand why you would either.
When I was six, I spent every Sunday morning sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. She would hover over the New York Times crossword puzzle, pencil poised as the smoke from her Kent Kings pulled lazily into the air. Some days I’d help, pushing my cereal bowl to the side to man the thesaurus and dictionary to help her look up words. Other mornings, I would pound away on her portable blue Smith Corona typewriter, crafting a story about flying giraffes or kung fu fighting squirrels. I knew from those early years, swimming around in the words, splashing them onto the page, that I wanted to be a writer.
It was a dream I pursued through high school and college, one fiction or poetry workshop after the next. But when graduation came, so did a flood of fear; that I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t make a living doing what I loved. So instead of pursuing a career in writing, I got a “real job.”
I never left writing completely. I would steal loving glances at it on weekends, working on my manuscript, a short story, or even flash fiction. We’d meet in coffee shops, lock ourselves away in my home office. I’d attend writing retreats and conferences so we could spend more time together. I dreamed of being a writer full time.
So, at the end of last year, when my boss told me that my position was being eliminated, I was more ecstatic than sad. I could spend every waking moment working on my manuscript. This was my chance to become the writer that I’d always wanted to be!
The first few days after the holidays as a “full-time writer” went well. I was focused, energetic and eager to get to the page every morning. But as the days passed, my resolve wavered. Some days I would sit down at my desk, and it was just like days of old—I felt inspired, creative, the words flowed. Other days, I felt like taking a jackhammer to my keyboard.
While I made progress on the manuscript, I was surprised at how hard it was to stay focused. I found every excuse I could not to sit down and write—laundry or dishes, an errand to be run, a phone call to make. One day, my procrastination efforts were so extreme that I chose to steam clean my furniture instead of sitting down at my computer. Before losing my job, I could always fall back on a long list of excuses as to why the writing “couldn’t” get done, most of which involved a lack of time or brain capacity to do it. But now? There were no more excuses, and yet, there were some days that I had nothing on the page.
I learned some valuable lessons. Creative work, or really any type of work that happens outside of a traditional corporate environment feels different. The pace of my days changed from having every minute accounted for in meetings or deadlines to relatively open and unscheduled. To feel like I was still accomplishing something, it was important for me to build in some structure: writing dates with friends, accountability partners to keep me on track, and joining a professionally led read and critique group where I have pages due every other week.
I learned to have more patience with myself. There are times to work through your writing, to keep your butt in the chair and your fingers on your keyboard, and there are times to step away. I had to listen to my inner writing guide and learn which was which—to balance my need for a break, knowing I would come back with fresh eyes, with the guilt of walking away from my project.
And this new life still has stress, but it’s a different type of stress that comes from starting a new type of career, building a business around writing, and failing at things so that I can learn and grow. It has taken more time to adjust than I had thought and I still have my days of fear and doubt, just as I did when I was twenty-two, but overall as I sit at the kitchen table every morning with my laptop and my coffee, I’m incredibly grateful.
In her newest memoir, “The Best of Us”, Maynard chronicles her relationship with her second husband Jim, from their whirlwind romance to his pancreatic cancer diagnoses. What begins with a fairytale courtship for two people in their late fifties quickly morphs into their joint fight for Jim’s survival.
I’m always drawn to Maynard’s memoirs because of her fierce honesty. Similar to “At Home in the World,” we continue to see a woman unafraid to examine herself under the plainest of lights. She is willing to show the reader both the tender moment when she curls up in bed with her husband after his diagnoses to read their wedding vows to one another, and the moment that she posts on social media that she resents her husband for keeping her from the things she loves most, like writing. She does not shy away from discussing delicate topics, such as the rehoming of her adopted Nigerian children, just a year after she’s brought them home. She’s even-toned and candid about her decisions, speaks in frank terms of the backlash and threats she received as a result.
I admire the grace with which Maynard handles her struggle to come to terms with her husband’s terminal diagnoses and their collective fear. There are points in this story that are so honest and heartbreaking — a letter from her friend Deborah, asking “have you figured out ‘hope’ yet? And if so, would you mind sharing,” a quote from her friend Graf, “You are swimming now across this vast lake and you know now that only one of you will make it. What can you do but keep moving toward the shore?” And the most poignant, “If only,” I often said, “you could learn the lessons of cancer without having cancer.”
This is a wonderful story not only of illness and fear, but of love and loyalty.
Huge thanks to Net Galley, and to Bloomsbury publishing for my digital copy for a fair and honest review.
It’s been 100 days since I left the corporate world. Just over three months since I was gently pushed from the plane of life as I knew it and began my free fall into something new. 100 days of growing roots at home and easing gently back into a routine, a regular writing practice, only to fall out of it again. 100 days of trying to bleed out all of the stress only to realize that it will always be there, it will just be a different kind. A stress that comes from complete self-reliance, from trusting blindly what’s next, from trying to put flesh on the bones of this new life. I have days where the light stretches me, when I can hear my own heartbeat strong and steady. I have days where the fear and anxiety still crawl into my belly, leaving me frozen with pain. I have learned to sit with the pain again, to lean in so that its intensity shrinks when I look at it plainly.
I’m still terrible at things that I thought would get better. I’m terrible at sitting and crave the speed of “busy.” Because “busy” is an excellent procrastination tool. I still crave structure and routine and sometimes feel adrift as I step into the new week without a calendar full of meetings and conference call. I still look to others to tell me that I’m good enough. A good enough leader. A good enough friend. A good enough writer – a lesson learned painfully when I had the virtual wind knocked out of me by someone I admired. A younger version of myself would’ve been shaken for weeks. But I surprised myself with how quickly I stood up, carefully brushed their words off and left them behind. I’ve learned to listen to my body and trust my gut.
100 days of delicately peeling off the labels I’ve felt society had mistakenly applied to me only to realize that I was the one that was applying them in the first place. 100 days of trying to shake the “shoulds”, succeeding some days and sliding back into old habits on others. 100 days of simplifying and shedding the layers of complexity that I lacquered on to shield myself from disappointment or fear.
100 days of creating. Of building community. Of letting go instead of holding on. Of slipping in to new skin. 100 days of slowing down enough to recognize myself in the mirror – and for the very first time- being strangely satisfied with what I see. Looking forward to what the next 100 days will bring.