Legacy, and Lack Thereof

A day ago, a friend asked me, “what is your biggest fear?”

I can’t typically answer that. When it comes to existential questions that want quantitative answers – what’s my [insert comparative word here] [insert mental or emotional process or list here]? – I’m not your gal. I’m a navel gazer, sure, but kind of a stupid one, with a tragically short memory. If some revelation about my own inner workings happens to stick, it’s by miracle of luck and timing, or it’s because I’ve repeated the same behavior enough times that even I’m annoyed by it.

So the question yesterday brought me up short. What I’m afraid of changes by the day. Afraid of the stuff I can’t see, just outside of my peripheral vision. Afraid I missed out on life by being such a careful teenager, so easily swayed by other people’s worry. Afraid I’m wasting my life. Afraid of pain. Not, oddly, afraid of death. Afraid enough not to poke my fingers in a light socket, I guess, but the impending eventuality of my own death at some unknown hour doesn’t bug me. (Edit: Actually, it does. Just… it’s complicated.)

For the first time, though, when asked a question that required me to quantify something so unformed, an answer appeared. It’s not new. Remember what I said earlier, about me and remembering personal revelations. I’ve had the same thought a few times, floated in and then out again, trailing nebulous terror.

I’m afraid of disappearing. Of leaving nothing behind. Of dying without professionally publishing a word.

It’s a pretty human thing to be afraid of. We elevate and cherish the legacies of other people. We tape quotes to our cabinet doors; make purses out of our favorite book covers; read biographies of actors and politicians and writers dead before we were born.

I have no children, and I plan to have no children. I’ll be a broken line in the family tree – an offshoot line; a period instead of a comma. My progeny will have to be something else.

For a long time, I’ve been a background coach for other writers, while I struggle with my own novels. I write, but nothing fruitful. Nothing finished. I’m a writer, not the author of.

In high school, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged me to write fiction. Every year I took her class, I participated in a regional short fiction contest. We sweated at it time and again, editing, proofing and polishing a submission. And every year? Second place. Second place. Second place.

That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s my biggest fear. Living and dying with nothing but a veritable dump heap of out-of-date posters, several terrabytes of PSD files on someone else’s server, a handful of second place high school fiction, and an empty space where a book should have been.

So having recognized that, I’m going to fill the void. Put a book on the shelf. It feels like I spent the last few years fighting. The internal critic, the internal editor, the internal coward, the eternal procrastinator. I’m exhausted and I’m out of patience with it all, but it feels like maybe the writer’s stepped up. The writer in me is tired of wrestling with them, ready instead to flip them the bird and move on.

Whatever it takes this year, I’m finishing a book.

Parenting My Thirtysomething Self

I’d like to think of myself as an adult. An adult that buys anything with unicorns plastered on it and believes in ghosts, yes; but an adult. When it comes to anything that requires effort, discomfort, self sacrifice, commitment or responsibility; however, that adult persona wields about as much real influence as the mother of a tired toddler in the middle of a supermarket.

Go to the gym? You mean we have to do this AGAIN? A year into this I’m still overweight and my knees hurt and I don’t wanna.

Write? How is it that with all this technology I STILL can’t vomit my thoughts straight onto my laptop? I haven’t had a minute to myself all day and my work is crap and Netflix has documentaries on sushi and I don’t wanna.

Paint? My studio is six blocks away and it’s cold and the walk is cold and it’s lonely and I suck and I don’t wanna.

Get up on time for work? My bed is soft and warm and I’m sick of smiling at people when I don’t feel like it and I don’t wanna.

See what I mean? I’m not kidding myself here – getting my selfish, self-absorbed asshole self to do things that are tough doesn’t require responsibility or commitment or whatever other buzzwords my adult delusions want to throw at it. I have to parent this mulish idiot. Sometimes that’s reminding myself of the consequences – if I don’t scoop the litterbox the cat will just shrug and do her business on the library carpet. Sometimes it’s reminding myself of the positive outcome – if I write today, I’ll feel better; I like how easy it is to go up the stairs and that’s because of the gym.

And sometimes it’s just flat-out, unmitigated bribery.

Go to the gym for thirty minutes and you can spend time in the locker room hot tub. Write for thirty minutes and you can have that cupcake you’re lusting after in the fridge. Get up and shower quickly enough and you’ll have time to play a couple levels of Juice Jam. You can scroll through Pinterest for kitten pictures and misty country mornings for an hour if the inspiration will move you back into the story you’re revising. Get up out of your office chair and walk to the end of the hall and you can refill your coffee. Drink half of that liter of water and you can have another cup of coffee. Drive to the grocery store by yourself and you can get a lemon poundcake slice at Starbucks afterward. Call the doctor when your social anxiety has made you put the phone down eight times, and you can disappear into episodes of Chronicles of Shannara for as long as you want.

It works most of the time. It works because I’m still a messy animal with an animal brain that responds to the biological reward system like a champ. I can talk about the beauty of the creative process and the deep love I have of writing and design but I don’t come to those processes easily or willingly 85% of the time. It annoys me that it takes the promise of a huge McDonald’s iced tea to get me the fuck off the couch and to the art studio, but I know the gears get rusty and stuck and need the lubricant of bribery to get moving – but once they move, they’ll spin baby, spin.

Strangely, shifting my perspective to seeing my stubborn self as a child I have to parent has softened the way I treat myself. I’m not as harshly critical. When I’m irrational, instead of ordering myself to stop being irrational, I can shrug, find some amusement in my own stupidity, and work myself through the root of it without feeling guilty. We expect children to behave in ways we find ridiculous and unproductive, but we frequently don’t have such forgiveness for our own silly selves. Parenting myself is equal parts acceptance and hope: acceptance of my ridiculous behavior, and hope that next time I’ll come to the work with fewer promises of cookies and Bubble Shooter. It means not beating myself up for my failures – because I’ll be honest with you, sometimes all the threats and the promises of treats later just don’t work – and it means trying again later.

This doesn’t mean I’m allowed to scribble on walls (without permission) or throw tantrums on the floor of a department store when I can’t indulge in a pretty necklace. This means I’m allowed to feel the impulse and move through it with empathy. More often than not, we speak to ourselves with words we wouldn’t use even on an annoying stranger. Being nasty to myself doesn’t work, but the promise of a hot soak with a Lush bath bomb? Yep. Like a charm.

I’m no saint. I’m not a reliable creature of habit either. But I guess, so long as that freaking bucket of iced tea from the McDonald’s Drive-Through window still holds enough appeal to get my laptop open, I stand a chance of getting stuff done.

Note to Self: Make Time

Fluffy gray kitten on the black and white keys of a piano.

Yo, self. Listen up.

Whatever the activity, if you want to get better at doing it, you have to make time regularly and do the thing. This applies to everything from cooking and archery to maille, writing, and art. I hear it applies to golf, but that shit still looks like equal parts luck and magic to me.

I hate making time. Unless your passion is a team sport, it can be a pretty solo act. Making time means being surrounded by social creatures who want a share of your time and saying “Sorry, I need to be alone right now to Do The Thing.” It’s giving up other activities because the thing you want to get better at requires more than an hour of your time.

Making time also requires that you get used to sucking on a regular basis. We don’t practice to remind ourselves that we’re brilliant at it. We practice because our failures are part of how we try new approaches, test theories, and perfect our craft. So great, on top of telling your significant other that you’ll be going to your studio at least three hours a week to paint, you have no guarantees that you’ll produce anything of quality in those hours. In fact, it’s highly likely that you won’t.

But you have to do it.

Not Doing The Thing will leave you at a point of stagnation. As a piano student of nine years, I’ve got a bitter shot of truth for you: there’s no guarantee your studio hours this week will make you ‘better.’ At least not in the quantifiable, justifying-this-to-my-spouse kind of way. But if you don’t go at all, the odds of improvement went to nil.

And if you do go, this week, next week, the week after and beyond – you absolutely will get better.

I Should…

  1. Not blame others when I don’t Do The Thing.
    Your significant other, your children, your pets are not responsible for you Doing The Thing. They aren’t responsible for getting out of your way or facilitating your space. If you didn’t Do The Thing today, it’s not their fault – don’t take it out on them.
  2. Start small.
    If you’re struggling to carve out that hour, try fifteen minutes instead. Hell, try five. Make sure you figure in your travel time, if you have to go somewhere else to practice. If you can fit in this much time, add another five, ten, fifteen minutes. If that works, add more. If not, do what you can. Feel accomplished for the work that you did do.
  3. Set a pattern and keep it.
    Do The Thing at as regular a time as you can. This will help your creativity to come when you whistle, but it also gives you a set time to mark as ‘yours,’ and schedule around.
  4. Learn how to say no.
    Time is the sacrifice you make for your passion. That may mean you can’t see the movie on premier night, can’t do that day trip this weekend, or have to say no to an impromptu drink with friends. Ultimately, the decision to say no is about your commitment to your craft. Remind yourself that you don’t need to feel guilty about occasionally saying no.
  5. Manage my time better.
    Unless you’ve wrestled that Time Turner away from Hermione Granger, there’s no way to magically add time to your day. You have a job, familial obligations, self care requirements to fulfill. Those things you may not have any control over. But when you have free time, manage it wisely. Sometimes, you’re going to walk six blocks chasing Pokemon. You totally should, it’s fun! But consider how much time you spend checking social media accounts. How many hours you blow feeding your herd of digital horses. How much time can you invest somewhere else?
  6. Learn how to say yes.
    When you’re not Doing The Thing, then commit 100% to Not Doing The Thing. It’s okay to binge three episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It’s okay to spend two hours playing Alpha Bear or Bubble Shooter. It’s okay to have dinner with your aunt, bake cookies with your spouse, go see a movie and not Do The Thing. Guilt and anxiety about not Doing The Thing will keep you from relaxing and fully enjoying what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you need downtime. You’ll come back fresh to Do The Thing another time.
  7. Practice ‘smart,’ not ‘hard.’
    An old adage from my piano teacher. Much of learning music can be simplified into recognizing patterns and chord structures, rather than reading every note on the staff. Once I understood the patterns, I could often intuit where the harmony would go next. What constitutes ‘smart’ practice is different for every discipline, but boils down to this: develop good habits that work for you. Read up on how folks in your discipline hone the craft. Figure out what learning style you connect with the most. What slows you down when you sit down to practice? Can you approach that another way?

Good luck, buddy. We’re in this together. I know you can do it.