Grossly qualified

For years, I was in the closet. Quite literally, I sat in my closet, writing for hours in hundreds of 180-page, spiral-bound notebooks, for most of my childhood: telling whatever little story that popped into my head, writing about Hootie and the Blowfish, drawing sketches, and filing it all away for myself. This year, my parents sold my childhood home and cleaned out that closet and the notebooks I left behind. With my permission, my parents put the notebooks on the curb for bulk trash pickup by the village trash collectors. In my mind, these notebooks were getting a somewhat unsentimental funeral, but one that felt right, as they had always been private for myself only (or so I had hoped). 

Within hours of being left on the curb, I had a message from a teenage girl who trash picked my notebooks and wanted to know if I wanted them back. She summarized what she found in them, clearly having read through things that I never thought (and really hoped would not) see the light of day. After much hand-wringing, I finally wrote her back. “I’m a writer now. These writings got me where I am today, but they’ve played their role.” I requested that she destroy them. 

After years of fiction and non-fiction writing; livejournals and microblogs; classes and notebooks; blogs and literary magazines, I did it. I called myself a writer. I told this strange garbage-picking teen, in so many words, that I had become the person that I always wanted to be. And I believed it. She responded (I imagine while popping her bubble gum and TikToking), “k.”

There’s nothing I love more than watching someone do something I could not, would never, be able to do myself. It’s why I loved Project Runway in college and spent hours in front of the Great British Baking Show over the last couple of years. It’s why I so frequently find myself at #BOSSBABESATX events, like I did during the kick-off of SXSW 2017. I sat and listened to a group of successful business women at the top of their creative fields answer the question “how do you deal with impostor syndrome” – and two answers knocked the wind out of me. One woman admitted what a process it is every day, talking herself out of feeling not good enough for the work she does and the life she leads. Another woman said, deadpan, that she doesn’t struggle with it at all. Her seat at the table is 100% hers. 

Sidney Gish has a song entitled “Impostor Syndrome” where she sings, “Every other day I’m wondering / what’s a human being got to be like? / What’s a way to just be competent? / These sweet instincts ruin my life.” Sidney emerged as a Mitski-tour-approved singer-songwriter before she could legally drink. Her voice rings with authenticity and creativity, writing about the human condition in a way only a young person can. She has a seat at the table. But, like the first woman I heard speak at Boss Babes, she can’t help but feel like she’s about to get caught for not being enough. “For human grossly underqualified / For canine grossly overqualified,” she says of herself.

For years, I didn’t describe myself as an artist. I told my paternal grandmother I wanted to be an artist once, and she told me, “Don’t be an artist. Artists are kooky!” Into adulthood, I (a pretty certifiable kook) painted and created and it was just a thing I did. I wasn’t serious or talented enough. Today, I own it. Is it confidence? Well, maybe. Is confidence when you give up caring what other people think of your own conception of who you are? If so, then yes. I’m an artist and I’m confident.

So why is it so much harder to characterize myself as a writer? Part of it is the ebb and flow of my writing practice. In 2013, I wrote every day and published it on my blog, Make. I went on to found Side Dish, a literary blog for people who wanted to be creative but maybe didn’t have that space in their professional lives. In 2016, I started Yoga Farts, which flourished for a year or two but has lately been dormant. 

If my confidence is less about believing in my own abilities in a way that I didn’t before and more about believing that I’m the one who gets to define me, then what does that mean for my seat at the table? I’ll be the first to admit that I live and die by the attention and praise of others, and it pushes my creative boundaries to know that someone is watching. I used to compare myself to other people. To writers who could find that right word and the right audience. To painters that could make a photorealistic dog instead of a cartoony one. It didn’t serve me. Every inch of growth I’ve had as a creative being has been from saying to myself, with eyes on my own paper, I want to do this and so I will. 

So this month, I’ve been reconceptualizing. Maybe it’s less about the seat and more about the table. You’re invited to join me any time, but it’s my table. I bought it off Craigslist for $25, and it has fizzy water rings all over it, and it’s mine. It’s where I paint and it’s where I write. It’s where I decide who I am.

Sleepwalk with me

My on- and off-again friend, depression, has silently, slowly been holding me back, like an older sibling with her palm on my forehead as I swing my fists, unable to strike my oppressor. This is not my friend depression’s usual approach with me; usually, she comes in slowly, getting ever louder as she pushes my pressure points and sore spots. Unlike for many, my depression is usually a screaming, crying pain, rather than an inert whimper. Ever the shapeshifter, depression arrived this year and made writing and painting excruciatingly painful – but in creation’s pain, it became so much more important, worthwhile, and fulfilling when I was able to eke out a piece of work.

A friend (a real friend, not my jerk depression) recently shared an essay I read years ago, that resonated differently for me this time. In “The Cost of Daydreaming,” Vivian Gornick writes:

Ever since I could remember, I had feared being found wanting. If I did the work I wanted to do, it was certain not to measure up; if I pursued the people I wanted to know, I was bound to be rejected; if I made myself as attractive as I could, I would still be ordinary looking.

Around such damages to the ego a shrinking psyche had formed: I applied myself to my work, but only grudgingly; I’d make one move toward people I liked, but never two; I wore makeup but dressed badly. To do any or all of these things well would have been to engage heedlessly with life — love it more than I loved my fears — and this I could not do. What I could do, apparently, was daydream the years away: to go on yearning for “things” to be different so that I would be different.

When I was growing up, I tackled my “fear of being found wanting” with achievement. I worked tirelessly to be praised and to have a piece of paper or a stroke of ink proving that I was not wanting. When I graduated from college, a switch flipped in me. My ceaseless endeavors towards having the best and most education gave me a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to be free. I wanted to accept myself and let go.

It was only after I’d given myself space and accepted myself that I started to feel my psyche shrinking, as Gornick said. It took years of ebbing and flowing, but here I am, half myself in everything I do, sleepwalking, latching onto big goals and outcomes that are always just around the bend, out of my reach. No ink nor paper to show for all of my half-work and bleary-eyed daydreaming, but also no satisfaction.

Creating is an uphill battle for me lately. I get excited about a project, prep for it, and drag myself through molasses to get started. Every brush or keystroke makes me feel more myself and more satisfied with my life, but each is harder than the last. For me, art is about revealing myself; laying myself bare: here are the colors I love; here is my weakness; here is my strength; here is the nose I got in the neighborhood of correct; here are the people I care about; here’s what I was too self-conscious to paint right the first time, but got right the second time; here is how I spend the last slants of late fall light after coming home from work. Since starting to paint for clients in 2011, I’ve had to unlearn my instinct to poke fun at what I do to alleviate some of the pressure of hoping people like what I have to share. I have had to stand next to my writing and my paintings and say, “Here I am. This is me.”

unnamed

The only piece of art I’ve finished in four months is this painting of Miranda July for Sandy, a person who has always supported me and artistically inspired me. I’m proud of this piece because I think I got Miranda July’s spirit right, but also because it was a trial through the thick of my creative mental blocks lately. In the end, I had to fight the final boss of my depression: putting all of myself into something and accepting I might fail with no one to blame but myself. I knew that if I were to stop, it would be an even greater failure. I would be going back on my word (and my Venmo) with someone who believes in me.

Gornick’s essay talks about the vacancies left when you stop daydreaming and start holding yourself accountable for the moments in life that you hold onto or let pass away. Knowing what activities help me grasp these moments has been half the battle: it has taken years to peel back the layers of myself and find that all along, the things that make me happy are the activities I loved as a little girl. Now that I can see the emptiness of achievements and the wholeness of art, I have a map of where I’m going and what I’m fighting for, but the guiding force is the people who see me, who have always seen me, as capable of failure, but as more than enough.

Side A

I’ve been on a tear. I’ve been tearing through creative pursuits, work projects, new albums, favorite recipes, and self-help innovations. I’m riding the wave with the ducks I have in a row for the first time of my twenties (and it’s about damn time): a balanced brain, a happy relationship, a decorated home, a great job, at least $100 in my bank account right now maybe (unclear). The thing about waves is that they crash, and for me this happens when I’m required to sit still. The other night, after exhausting all the creative work I could do, I cried because I was bored, because I was hungry, because it was Sunday, because life is expensive, 🎶 because because BECAUSE – because of the wonderful things I’d done 🎶and had left me listless.

There’s no one self-care experiment I’m trying right now, so here’s a post as mixed up and energetic as I am. Lately I’ve been up to some:

Listening

I got the idea early (can’t sleep past 5 am club!) yesterday morning to create a playlist of songs about loving yourself. Obviously it’s mostly Lizzo and Beyonce, but also some Santigold, Amber Coffman, and Avey Tare. I’m opening up this playlist to everyone! Please share with me your power songs.

Reading

I lose the term “reading” loosely here – perhaps scrolling would be more apt and honest. Out of the thousands of memes, I plucked an amazing thread on free/cheap self-help that I found really helpful and I want to keep as a lifeline during harder times.

Experiencing

We all know I love #bossbabesATX, especially their fantastic meets where you can mingle and share projects. Lately they’ve been crowdsourcing answers to discussion questions and posting some of the answers on their blog. I found the conversation about self-care right up my alley, and laughed out loud at some of these cute and honest answers.

Striving

I find myself working through health and fitness goals and being so discouraged by my setbacks, which spawn new and harder setbacks. After some soul-searching, I’ve found a coach who can help me through some of these tougher hurdles (the frequency and consistency of my exercise; drinking; mindless eating). She’s something of a life coach, a dietician, a motivational speaker, and a personal trainer (easy on this aspect). So far, one of the greatest things is telling her some small victory for me and having it be celebrated and claimed, like a mountain climbed. I’ve learned that asking for a little extra help can do wonders. I’m sure some of her wisdom will spur future posts.

Showing up for myself

In an effort to harness some of my creative energy for good, I created an Instagram just for my paintings. This puts all of my (admittedly poorly documented) work in a single place I can point to when people ask what I create. The results have been astounding to me. People have been loving my work and dreaming up custom painting orders. I do my paintings for little profit – I spend a good deal on monthly supply orders and charge about $35-$60 a painting – but I decided that some of my extra cash would be used to help my neighbors in Houston, through the Houston Food Bank. Painting orders are open now – just shoot me an email at martin.emmamarie at gmail dot com!

• • •

That’s my self-care mixtape for right now. It didn’t require too much rewinding or hitting record at the exact time a song came on the radio. It wasn’t given to me by a high school boy in the 1990s. There are no Promise Ring songs about it. Nevertheless, I’ll hope you’ll submit your own tips for me to explore and songs for me to sing along to in the shower. Don’t leave out Hüsker Dü.

Anvils, Oprah, and the capacity for delight

Ever the wannabe Oprah, I cannot count the number of times I have told a heartbroken or struggling friend, “It’s okay to feel your feelings.” I mean, it’s not okay: it’s horrible and hard, and sometimes you’d rather feel someone else’s good feelings, god dammit.

I am neither heartbroken nor struggling, but lately, I’ve had trouble following my own advice. I’d rather have a cocktail or put on the television than be alone with my thoughts. Circumstances have changed. My lifestyle of long solitary walks, which allowed me to really digest my feelings about my situation, has lately been interrupted by chronic foot problems. It’s become more acceptable to throw back a wine spritzer every night of the week now that my companion is home. My writing and painting time has been interrupted by happy hour after happy hour, pool cocktail after pool cocktail, nightcap after nightcap: time to dry out!

But the problem isn’t truly that social drinking is clouding my connection with myself. The problem is that I’ve been using socializing, drinking, and TV to disconnect. What am I missing? What is it that I’m trying to avoid?

In an effort to use some creative energy to understand why it is that I’m so uncomfortable sitting with my thoughts, I’ve been rereading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The book is prescriptive and self-helpy, with instructions about how to live creatively, unencumbered by the weight of other people and life situations. It’s a great read for anyone seeking a new way of framing their lives. I was struck by Julia’s insight about ways to cultivate happiness. She writes, “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight.”

That may seem rather opaque or rather vague, depending on your point of view, but it totally blind-sided me. I had a moment of revelation where I felt the rug of my preconceptions of happiness pulled out from me. I was Wile E. Coyote meeting the unexpected cliff. What does Julia mean by the “capacity for delight”? She goes on to explain that the power of observation, the opportunity and willingness to be enchanted by the small things going on around us, can overwhelm the negative or creativity-squashing circumstances in our lives.

I vocally and steadfastly reject the notion that one can choose to be happy and for it to just be so. As a person who has known mental illness intimately, I know that happiness isn’t always a choice. However, the “capacity for delight” seems more doable, more possible, even in the throes of depression. Can you find one good thing in your field of vision? One good memory about the day? It’s a welcome new practice for me, someone who has been glossing over the small delights in an effort to disconnect from it all. By being more observant, more open to little sparks of joy, I hope to make my way back to my feelings, which aren’t so scary after all.

Some delights for me this morning: the cat is craning her neck to nuzzle my face; the man whose car alarm goes off every time he turns the ignition is leaving early for work today; I woke up on the first, not the third, alarm; the new coffee maker works like a charm. A night without a social engagement and the wine that comes with it has left me feeling my eyes open a little wider, my mind a little fresher.

Not everything will be a delight, of course. There are uncomfortable feelings there too, the ones I so often ignore lately, such as feelings of self-doubt and creative constipation; feelings of anxiety; and feelings of exhaustion. But today, it all feels more doable when I smile about the car alarm instead of glower. Contentment with my surroundings, even small pieces of it, is my gateway drug into the harder stuff. Not heroin, but the fiddly bits of my brain that are making noise.

Luckily for me, my Wile E. Coyote cliff has landed me in a placid pool full of cute ducks and palm trees (do these two things exist together? Whatever, it’s my imagination, I can do whatever I want!) along with the anvils and the puffs of smoke.

Art tells us who we are

Sandy and I met at a Jens Lekman concert. I saw her, petite and singularly fashionable, giving her ID to the bouncer at Lincoln Hall, and I was nervous to say anything. She was an internet friend of a friend and I was not yet numb to the awkwardness of meeting people on the internet – thanks Twitter. Eventually, we connected at the show and that was it. We’ve been through Big Star margaritas, music festivals, bad boyfriends, bad jobs, grad school stresses, life revelations, and vintage shops together.

Sandy works at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC and, fittingly, the advice I snagged from her comes from her work with artist Ai Weiwei. I just about died when she posted the following Instagram:

sandy

Ai Weiwei infiltrated my consciousness because his sculpture Forever Bicycles made its way to Austin. I know next to nothing about the artist, but I’ll leave that to the curators and art historians out there. What I do know is: that’s some damn inspiring advice. Let’s break it down:

1. Learn a new skill

This week, I made a lasagna. That might seem like no big deal, but it’s one of the few holdouts of my mom’s recipes that I just have been too intimidated to make. I looked at the recipe, realized it might take around three hours, and balked. But that Saturday afternoon, it was raining, Sam was with Buddy the dog, and I had three hours. I did it – and it felt amazing. This was a new task, not a new skill, but it made me feel good as hell. Using muscles that hadn’t been discovered yet made my whole self feel strong and ready for whatever comes my way.

2. Travel places your parents never went

My spin on this is a little different, since my parents travel more than I do and never invite me to Hawaii. I try to live the lives that they didn’t have, to make them proud of the opportunities I take advantage of. To be clear, my parents have lived lives I can barely dream of (insert joke about millennial home ownership), but there are still worlds to conquer for the Martins. For me, this means living in three major cities, going to grad school, and moving cross country at the drop of a hat (okay, like three months of the hat dropping). These are opportunities that they have helped me meet, and I hope to continue to have experiences that they can ooo and ahhh over for years to come. I also hope to continue giving them heart attacks over my whimsical tattoos (Mom, it’s just the one).

3. Find things to tell stories about

This is really my passion: telling a story through non-fiction writing, through painting, and through archiving. My dreams tell me stories. My friends give me stories to tell. This is one of the great surprises of life – the stories that unfold and that just get better when repeated. I wonder about new ways to tell stories, about how to gather the stories of other. I’m always looking for your help with this, for your stories, for help telling my own.

∙  ∙  ∙

When I asked Sandy if I could share Ai Weiwei’s advice, she added a bit of additional wisdom. The artist said, “Art tells us who we are.” The art we make reflects not only who we are at the core, but it reflects the art we’ve taken in and devoured – the nourishment that life and art has given to us. What others create can be just as much (or more!) about ourselves than about those who made it.

Stay hungry, my friends!