On holding still

I am talking to Pete (not his real name) at the coffee shop. It is probably more accurate to say I am listening to Pete. Pete is homeless, and he passes many hours of each day at the coffee shop, usually sitting outside except on the coldest days of winter. Most days he greets everyone by name including, occasionally, people who are not there.

Some days when he is having a hard time and his demons, whatever they are, get the better of him, he doesn’t greet anyone at all.

I don’t know why I talk to Pete. It’s not my job and I always have something else I should be doing, a manuscript to work on, a document to review. Pete can talk for a very long time if he can get someone to hold still for it. He doesn’t expect anyone to listen but he always appreciates it when they do and thanks them afterward.

The secret is in not breaking stride. You answer his greeting, one hand on the door, and then you slide inside, no harm done. In other words, I know how to avoid him. It is just that some days I don’t. I have no idea why.

Today it is a beautiful Friday afternoon with a light breeze and a sunny sky. It is the first day that feels like spring, a perfect spring day, the kind we don’t get nearly enough of.

I’ve taken my coffee outside and Pete starts talking. It’s not as if I have to listen to him. I could get started on my project, which I have spread out on the table in front of me. He will take the hint and won’t be offended.

Instead I lean back in my chair, coffee in my hand. Every now and then I’ll interject a comment and he listens carefully and when I am through, he will say, “Yes, that’s right,” or “Yes, but here’s what I think.”

He is never adversarial. No one is ever wrong, they just don’t have all the facts. His talk covers foreign policy, Greek mythology, Erich Fromm, and the cultivation of innate talent. I realize halfway through that I talk with Pete because he’s more interesting than 99 percent of the people who enter my orbit, prattling on about their multilevel marketing plans for Christianity and how about those Royals.

Today he tells me something his wife used to say, then adds, “She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.” I don’t know if this is something that happened recently or a very long time ago. It seems to be both at once, fresh and remote. Like he is trapped in a temporal fold, and the event keeps playing over and over. He can’t escape it. He has had a while to get used to it but he still can’t believe it happened.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“You didn’t know that?” He sounds a little puzzled, and seems to sort through his memory, trying to figure out what I know about him, which isn’t much. I’m not trying to save him or be there for him or anything like that. I’m just listening to him because he’s interesting. Believe me I wouldn’t bother if he were prattling on about the ten pounds he needs to lose.

He seems to know a good deal more about the inner workings of the federal government than a sixty-something homeless man ought to and for a while I imagine he is a retired CIA agent or maybe a diplomat who had a little trouble with drink at his last posting. He is tactful, the way I imagine an ambassador would be, or maybe the protocol officer on an ambassador’s staff.

But then his talk about the government shades into government conspiracy theory and I realize he is just someone who reads a lot.

Today he is roaming over his past, apparently having decided it is safe enough to entrust it to my keeping, and it comes out that he first started having trouble in third grade, when he didn’t understand the purpose of school. I think how young that is for it to already start going wrong.

Then he tells me he is sharing his stories because he thinks someone can learn from them and I guess that means me, and maybe I will. Right now I am lifting my face to the breeze and sipping coffee and listening to Pete straighten out the world. I think he would be very good at it except when he has his bad days but maybe then we could just have a substitute, or close the offices for a holiday.

He is talking about playing soccer and not understanding the rules and he laughs a little and then he says, “I just thought you kicked the ball down the field. But you had to be part of a team. I never learned how not to be alone. I don’t know how to do it.”

And in that moment I am right there with him. It is curious and hard, to be apart from the world, to see the games and not understand them. I think maybe someone will invite me to play or that I can invite myself and I try that but I still don’t know the rules. Everyone else seems to know them. But when I try it turns out I cannot play, because I do not have job promotions to crow about and my daughter isn’t getting college acceptance letters and I’m not celebrating twenty years together this Tuesday.

I think the anxious bleating about Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is just window dressing, that there is something more serious beneath, but it turns out they think Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is serious; they think it is just about the most serious thing that could be. The vapidity is not just surface; it goes clear through. I can’t begin to imagine being like that. I cannot begin to imagine wanting to.

Maybe all of us feel this way. I don’t know. How would I know? I can’t seem to scratch beneath the surface of anyone. I think most people fit in okay. They’ve taken the stray ends and tucked them in so they can belong. Belonging is powerful and safe and I get that, I understand it but I don’t believe in it. I used to, until I learned that you can’t buy safety no matter how good you are or how much money you have.

I see the apartness grow, the gulf between becoming wider and wider, the connections dropping away. My ex-husband calls my life “streamlined” because there is just me and my daughter and my work and sometimes I’m pretty damned doubtful about the work. I long ago stopped believing it was worth doing or that there would be some reward other than a check payable to, so maybe all I have left is a habit. If I didn’t have my daughter, my next stop would probably be homelessness, too.

Pete is talking about his friend, who made a scene downtown and was arrested. “She just wanted attention,” he says and I know he doesn’t mean like a kid acting up although in a way he does. He means she wanted someone to say, Yes, I see you there. Yes, I see you.

“They gave her pills,” he says. “It wasn’t pills she needs.”

That’s a favorite solution, like two round white pills will do the trick. That what is wrong is something to do with brain chemistry or socialization. Maybe it is. But I somehow doubt it. People think the homeless would stop making scenes downtown if only everyone had access to some round white pills and a kindly social worker to pass them out. But human lives are complicated and mental health is hard, especially when we pathologize every difference. It used to be that conformity was suspect. Now it is nonconformity that alarms people. Twee hipsters pose at it but they are just as invested in the games as anyone else.

I probably became a writer to try to bridge that apartness, to have a conversation and not just an echo. But sometimes all I hear is the echo.

I sip my coffee. The breeze stiffens into  a wind. I realize I have more in common with the homeless guy than with any of my friends. That is a fact worthy of contemplation though I have no idea what to make of it.

But for a little while, as the heavy trucks barrel down 23rd Street and I strain to hear what Pete is saying, I’m not alone at all.

Week 9. On practicing perfectly

One of the things I love about writing is getting into that mental state where the words come effortlessly, without my having to think too hard about it. That moment where I’m lost in the work, and have no awareness of the ticking clock or the buzzing fly. Just me and the work. Beautiful. Zen.

Unfortunately, flow is also a state where you, or at least I, can produce an endless amount of crap. Flow, by its nature, circumvents the editor on your shoulder who hates every other word you write. Now, often the editor on your shoulder will keep you from writing if you let her, so you have to find a way to shut her up. One way is to just get into flow, where she can’t follow you. EOTS hates flow.

On the other hand, the editor on your shoulder is often right. You’re writing crap, and you need to do better.

Here’s the thing: practice does not make perfect (this is something we learn in martial arts). Perfect practice makes perfect. That is to say, if you practice a sloppy kick ten thousand times, all you’ve learned how to do is kick in a sloppy way. That is not mastery. It’s not even competence.

So the problem with flow is that it can be sloppy, and not in an organic, generative way where you can make something of it. It can be a form of masturbation. And while you may enjoy that, no one else really wants to see it.

When you’re doing the work, you need to be able to do the work even without flow. Even with the editor on your shoulder criticizing every third word. Even when it’s just no fun at all.

Week 8. Understand and respect the art

When I first began training in the martial arts, I met a lot of people who were interested in what I was doing, a certain number who would do it themselves if only they weren’t so afraid of getting hurt, and a handful who rolled their eyes and asked me if I thought I was a match for their eight-year-old nephew who was taking Tae Kwon Do.

I didn’t really care what other people thought, but what always struck me as odd was how many of the eye rollers ended up taking classes and then—surprise surprise—got nothing out of the experience. I guess they wanted to prove to themselves that they were right to scorn.

Doing the work, whatever the work is, requires understanding and respecting the work. I once took on a write-a-novel-in-thirty-days challenge (not Nanowrimo, but a situation where I had to deliver a manuscript to a publisher in a month). I succeeded, but that would never have been possible if I had never written a romance before. There’s no way I could have learned all I needed to learn about writing romance in thirty days.

What I did is in some ways quite straightforward: I did something I already knew how to do, I just did it faster. If I hadn’t known what I was doing, all the slogans and atta girl!s in the world wouldn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t have succeeded.

What I notice is that a lot of people don’t understand the work they want to do, and they don’t take the time to gain that understanding. There are people who have contempt for romance who try to write romance because they think it’s easy. (There are people who try to write children’s and YA for the same reason, despite never reading the genre. The list goes on.)

While I suppose you can “understand” something you have contempt for, it’s very difficult to do the work required to succeed under those conditions. Mostly because it’s a lot of work. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time on things I think are ridiculous or pointless or unimportant, and I don’t care enough about them to do them right. This is why my house is never vacuumed.

To understand what you need to do, and to do it well, you have to care about what you do. Start from there. I am never going to care about vacuuming so there is no point in my giving it any mental space.

When you’re trying to understand the work—and trying to do the work—naturally you will look to others along the way for help and guidance. You can’t do the work completely in isolation, although you do need a lot of time alone with your butt in that chair. You have to find out if you’re succeeding at your endeavor, and that means getting feedback.

How you get better at doing the work is by figuring out where you are going wrong. The feedback tells you. Now, some feedback is more important than other feedback. Who cares what Joe on the street says unless Joe on the street happens to be your target reader, an agent who reps your genre, or an editor who acquires books like yours?

On the other hand, if nineteen agents tell you that you don’t have the first clue what a romance is, then it’s quite possible you don’t have a clue what a romance is. Shaking your fist at them for telling you the news and saying, “I’ll show you!” is what ten year olds do. You’re not ten. You need strategies that help you get better, not strategies that keep you in a state of denial.

Care about the work. Learn about the work. Be open to guidance. Do the work. #WishICouldTattooThisOnMyForehead

Week 7. On having enough

One of the most important lessons in Dojo Wisdom is the one that says, “If you think you don’t have enough, you will never have enough.”

The human appetite for more is enormous and insatiable. That’s the fundamental principle of philosophies such as Buddhism. And the cure is to stop feeding the craving. This is the hard part, of course, and why there are entire books/libraries/lives devoted to figuring out how.

But I want to talk about two aspects of this problem that have emerged for me over the last few years. One is that our cravings are often disguised as goals, and we know that goals are supposed to be good. So we make it a goal to write a book or to run a marathon. And as far as they go, such goals are fine, even laudable. But pursuing goals based on the insatiable hunger for more never satisfies. Such goals never result in what the person who set them intended.

If you think having a pile of money in the bank is security, then you will never have enough money in the bank. There will never be a time when you have enough. You can save a million dollars and it won’t be enough. You can save ten million dollars and it still won’t be enough.

If you think, “Gee, I’m going to save a month’s worth of expenses in an emergency fund because unexpected expenses do crop up,” that’s one thing. Thinking you can somehow protect yourself from life is another.

I made this point in an online conversation once when everyone was stressing over money and someone chimed in: “I agree with Jennifer.” Then she anxiously added, “But you have to have a bare minimum.”

But you don’t. That’s my point. Money does not equal security no matter how much you sort of wish it would. Money is a storehouse of value, but what it stores isn’t security.

Life is more difficult without money, obviously. But if you don’t have any, that wouldn’t mean the game was over. You’re creative, you’d figure it out.

I say this not as someone sitting on vast reserves of money but as someone who occasionally has precisely none.

You know what’s better than money in the bank? Faith in yourself. You need to feel secure? Go hug a friend.

Money has helped my daughter Jessica get good medical care but it didn’t stop her from being born with a devastating disease. Money couldn’t have prevented the accident that killed my friend Chantal. Money does not protect you from life—or from death.

I’m not trying to glorify poverty here. I like having money a lot better than I like not having money. I live in an area where I see daily the hard and hopeless effects of poverty. I’m not saying that’s any way to live. I’m just saying money will not save you from life. And maybe instead of being in desperate pursuit of it, you could be building the things that do give you security: a loving home, your own creativity, friendships with all kinds of people.

But I’ve hesitated to write this post for a long time because of the second aspect of this concept. The concept implies that you should be grateful for what you have and to be content with who and what you are. And I fully believe that. But I am so tired of the pressure on people, on women especially, to live their lives small, to be grateful for every scrap the beneficent overlords bestow on them, to not rock the boat or make too much noise, that I have to call bullshit on myself.

So let me be clear. I am not talking about making your life small. I am not talking about being okay with injustice or saying you should stick with the job you hate because you should be thrilled to have one in the first place. I am saying that you have to be very clear about what you want and why you want it, or you will be chasing desires that can never be satisfied, no matter how hard you try.

There’s a very old lore that says when you visit the fairy realms, you must be careful never to eat the food you’re offered, or you will sicken and die of want. The word “glamour” originally meant a fake facade, an enchantment meant to lure unsuspecting victims to their doom. Today we celebrate glamour and think how much we want the things that glitter instead of being suspicious of them. A medieval peasant had more sense than that.

Yes. I’m saying be as smart as a medieval peasant. Don’t trust the glamour. See what is real, and care about that. Let your life be about experiencing it fully and completely, not about chasing chimeras.


Week 6. Guarding your ears, take two

When I first began training in the martial arts, I had a lot of fear. I was afraid I would get hurt and that people wouldn’t like me and I would never fulfill my dreams and I would never have a family and on and on.

The first kick started breaking away the fear. But beneath the fear was a lot of anger. And uncovering it was unpleasant and uncomfortable. It turned out I was angry about a lot of things. About why I felt I had to keep quiet and the unfairness of the sexist assholes who had too much influence over my life and like that.

After a while I got tired of the anger and the fear and I let them go. Not completely: I still have a fair amount of outrage. And the only people who are completely fearless are psychopaths, which is not a condition I care to emulate. But it’s fair to say that after I trained for a while, these emotions—fear and anger—were no longer the dominant experiences of my life. I was learning how to assert myself. I was learning that some of the anger was directed at me, for not speaking up, for not walking away. Once I started taking those actions, I didn’t have to feel anger anymore.

Instead I felt confident, even content. On the whole, things were pretty good. But the thing about feeling confident that you can kick whatever asses need kicking and being content with the life you are living is a whole system of industries is set up to make you think you can’t kick whatever asses need kicking and that you shouldn’t be content with your lame-ass life.

You don’t have enough money to retire and you have to retire! because everyone does and what if you’re disabled and also you are fat and that will make you die. Also it is very unattractive for other people to look at. What kind of selfish bitch are you, anyway? And you are raising your children wrong. They are fat demanding slobs who haven’t been perfectly assimilated into the factory-worker mindset so they will never get jobs for which they are grateful and you are all going to die!

Yes, indeed.

For every voice saying, “You know, I got this,” there are ten thousand trying to drown it out.

The fact is, you are going to die, and unless you’re fairly close to your expiration date, you have no idea when.

But between now and then, you can have an amazing life, but not if you listen to everyone telling you that fear is good, and anger is better.

Don’t listen to them. You got this. You really do.

Week 5. Guard your ears

When I first began training in the martial arts, I had to learn to trust my teachers–when they said I could do something I didn’t think I could do, I had to try. Then I would discover that I could do the thing.

As I became more accomplished in the martial arts, I realized that often my teachers’ faith wasn’t even in me–it wasn’t that I, personally, had some special knack or skill. Their faith was in the process. If you did it right, it worked.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of teachers, not all of them positively inclined toward me. And one thing I’ve learned is that some teachers want to keep out everyone except the special people and other teachers want to welcome everyone in.

It’s the second kind you want and should trust, not the first. It’s the second kind you should listen to. Guard your ears against the first.

I got to thinking about this last week because some quotes from famous writers showed up on my Facebook  newsfeed. You know the kind, all related to the idea that only certain special Anointed Ones are writers and everyone else ought to just go home. That you can’t learn to be a writer, it’s innate, a gift and if you don’t have it, you may as well not try.

Which is just so absolute horseshit I can barely talk about it without losing my temper.

I get that some people want to be writers and some people don’t. But that’s about as far as I’ll go with predicting who will succeed and who won’t–even the very word succeed is problematic because what does it mean? Writing popular books doesn’t necessarily mean you know the craft, so is that success? Writing award-winning books that no one reads doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve succeeded, either. Writing good books that win no awards and aren’t particular popular isn’t necessarily failure. Nor is writing something that is outside what is socially agreed-upon to be “good” always failure.

I get tired of people bleating out discouraging adages as if they were certainties. I’m sure the people who bleat them out think they are part of the chosen group and they want the group to be special and if everyone can be in it, then the group’s not special. To which I say, grow the fuck up.

I agree that not everyone is at the same point in the journey. And I agree that gaining an understanding of any art or craft requires a certain aha! moment. What I object to is the idea that only certain preordained people will have that aha! moment.

The aha! moment is different for everyone. It comes at different times and places. I didn’t like or understand math until I got to college and met a teacher who unlocked the door for me. Then I felt competent. But it wasn’t until I was in my forties that I saw how math can be beautiful. But if I had decided ahead of time that only special people can understand math, I would still hate it and suck at it.

Maybe you’re not as good at your craft as you would like to be. Maybe, like me, you’ve spend the last two months trying to figure out how in hell to fix this manuscript. But that doesn’t mean you’re missing the fingerprint of god or something. It means you’re trying. And the only way anyone gets to the aha! moment is to try.

The idea that there are chosen people–in any field!–is offensive, disrespectful, and disempowering. But we idolize the teachers who say these things, as if they somehow know.

But they don’t know.

A good teacher isn’t one who discourages you from trying, from reaching, from pushing your limits. A good teacher trusts the process, not the student.