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.

Block party

When I started this blog in September 2016, I was a bit of a mess. I felt really isolated, really bad about my current state of affairs, and really ready to make a structured change. Some things about the blog have improved my life significantly – writing about weight gain and how to be honest with myself come to mind. Some things have not stuck the same way – I’m thinking of pieces about getting back to old habits and de-cluttering my dresser (oh lord, if you saw my dresser now, dear reader). Writing has always been a way to narrativize my existence, a way to create a vision of progress when the predominant feeling is stagnation. There’s a whole field (that I don’t understand!) called narrative medicine that studies patients telling stories rather than just describing symptoms, and how it helps physicians understand the individual and their affliction more fully. This field has always given me a sense of validation for my writing and my storytelling – if a doctor thinks stories save lives, well then, my GOD…

Sometimes, just sometimes, the chaos and mess in my life resist the pull of narrative like a cat resists taking a pill. I worship stories about the magic of the ordinary, certainly (please see my masters thesis) but if you’re not Virginia Woolf (I’m not), telling a story of how you went home, idled on the couch until the sun went down, and went to bed – well, let’s just say that you might not be all that compelling.

My problem isn’t writer’s block exactly – it’s something more existential. Liver’s block (that sounds like what happens to you after the infinity ciders of SXSW)? Framer’s block? Experiencer’s block? Unable to tell the story of my progress to myself, I am unable to make art from it. I don’t feel like I’m learning to live and care for myself better, and as such, I’ve written a big, fat, critically-scrutinized THE END.

Once a year, SXSW comes around and reminds me about the best parts of my life and my city, and this year, it has kicked my experiencer’s block right in the tush. The fun and activity of new experiences has me shook. Now’s not the time for major revisions to the narrative of my life – it’s time for a new story entirely. I used to start new stories with great frequency earlier in my twenties. I wrote an academic story, then I wrote a lapsed academic story.  I wrote a bad boyfriend story or two that were published to fan acclaim. I wrote a new state story that was warm and inviting. I wrote a serious story, I wrote a funny story, I wrote a drunken sea shanty. You get the picture. It isn’t the characters or the setting that need retooling. No, it’s the life inside the narrative itself that needs to be willed into existence. I need to strike the right tone, to make the big choices, to discover hidden truths in the same old structures that I still call home.

I’ve decided to start with short stories – with little somethings about how I spend a day. I’ll post the greatest hits here. Other creative people, I’d love it if you could submit your own one-day-stories that I can share with my people. How are you understanding your own progress in the context of your ordinary life? What’s the driving force, who’s the antagonist, and what’s the style? Together, let’s see if we can start a new story.

If I shine

I have always been good at friends (braggy, I know). I don’t mean to say that I’ve always had a ton of friends, or felt extremely close to the people around me; I mean that the people I choose to share myself with are special. I don’t suffer fools, and I make a special effort to connect with people who are creative and dedicated to their own happiness in an authentic way. I have had my share of bad feelings about being locked out of groups of people (even lately! I’m almost 30!) but usually, upon reflection, it’s the people who (like me!) want to cultivate a totally welcoming, collaborative lifestyle that make me tick.

Most of this skill I’ve developed is selfish. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow coined the term Shine Theory™ to talk about women reflecting success onto each other – if I shine, you shine. I find this to be an incredibly helpful attitude when approaching my friendships. I like to be around people who bring out my best qualities, and I like being around people who I’m happy to pour my positive attitude into. I also take particular joy in someone telling me, “You have the best friends.” I do – and they’re yours for the sharing.

I write about friendship today because I’ve been in a creative rut. After a month of super intense painting in December, I took a month off and found my writing practice fall off too. The only creative pursuit I could really engage with was making pom poms – something I’m doing with my wedding planning energy for decor. Wedding planning has been a fun way to channel the tepid stream of my creative energies into something real – but let’s be real: my wedding is more than a year away, it’s one day of my life, and I have things to write and paint somewhere inside of me in the meantime. Since December, I’ve painted two things and written one post. How’s a girl to blow away the cobwebs?

Sometimes, I have to dig into my friendships to find the positive energy I can’t find within myself. Last month, a long distance bestie came to visit and reinvigorated my appetite for fun. Spinning around the dance floor at the White Horse, blurry-eyed and fancy-free, I remembered that I have a sense of adventure. Walking through Pease Park, I remembered I had a sense of reflection. He had given me back two of the key ingredients of my creative self.

Another good friend has asked me to support her – and to have her support me – in maintaining creative goals. We’re two writers – check her out at www.rosetruesdale.com – her in a state of transition in Berlin, me in a state of (reluctantly and enthusiastically) settling down in North Loop, Austin. My goal was small: to write once a week every week of March. When my alarm goes off, I think to myself, is today the day? Most days the answer is no. Today is the day to sleep my head off. But having some accountability meant that today, feeling rested, I cracked my knuckles over my 9-year-old laptop and here I am.

Sometimes, digging deep isn’t enough. I’ve learned to not get too freaked out by the ebb and flow of my creative tides, but I know that I feel better when I’m putting myself out there. That’s where you come in. What are some ways you motivate yourself to keep going? What are small goals and projects that bring you joy? Who are your creative engines – your motivators, who you know or don’t? If you shine, I shine – let’s hear it.

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.

Just kids

I recently asked my Facebook friends for help: what are their tips, tricks, and routines for self-care? I need advice – big league. The past month has been a stressful one and I’ve been knocked off my self-care game. This post is the first in a series of self-care tips from my friends.

Russell writes,

The self-care tip I’ve been investing some time into this year and that has really helped me is to kind of delve back into things that made me happy as a child and/or teen. This has taken the form of re-reading books, re-watching old animated TV/movies (which I probably never would’ve let myself because of the nagging voice in my head telling me I’m an adult now), and tapping back into a time when the only thing I had to worry about in a day was what I wanted to do to pass the time. It’s a small shift that’s really helped me a lot.

When I think back to my childhood, I remember really loving to dig holes and really hating to get in trouble. These interests were at odds, since it seems that adults don’t love you ruining their beautiful landscaping with a big old hole. Because of my limited memory of my childhood interests (hole digging – not such a great hobby to bring back into my daily life), I enlisted the help of my mom. Here what she remembers me liking to do:

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This is a blog mainly about how much I like soup. Thanks for reading!

But seriously, folks: my mom’s iMessage contains my new tenants of Summer ‘17:

  1. Be creative: this means being proactive about painting and (gulp) maybe getting into some Pinterest crafts. The fun part about this is that I have a new home rife with opportunities for me to hot glue somethin’ weird to somethin’ else.
  2. Get my hair wet: The aforementioned new home has a POOL, y’all. My new goal will be to get in that pool at least 3 times a week and to investigate exercises I can do in it (water aerobics here I come!).
  3. Use that table leaf: I love spending hours laughing with friends (I love to laugh – can you relate?), but my love of patio drinking and investigating new bars is getting a little pricey. I’m going to balance my expensive hobby with an inexpensive one: hosting meals at my house. We just acquired a small dining table that transforms into a large dining table. I will try to host friends at least once a week. Nothing like that 105 degree weather to get your soup appetite going!
  4. Read a book: Start with The Artist’s Way – Sue also mentioned how I loved to write. Seriously, Emma, just do it. Turn some pages. Scribble something down.

As for the media I consumed as a kid, I might find myself in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or hiring the Baby-Sitters Club. I might also read a Shel Silverstein book or learn more about Georgia O’Keeffe. I might return to my teen years and watch Amelie and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. One thing is for sure: I’m going to be listening to a whole hell of a lot of Bright Eyes.

Please, please help me on my quest to try out my friends’ self-care regimes. How do you stay sane-ish? What’s the one simple trick that keeps you looking glowy and feeling brand new?

Rise and grind

“I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays/When I get rudely awakened by the dustmen,” Damon Albarn says on the Blur song “Parklife” – and in my teen years, this seemed like the dream. Get up when I want (11 am), except sometimes, when life intervenes. When I grew up, I realized that it’s the other way around: Every morning, life intervenes in the form of a wakeful cat or a beeping alarm or an early work deadline. I wake up when I want, but only on Saturdays, and it’s usually more like 6.30, not 11.

Lately, I’ve started to lean into this. I wake up before my alarm, usually around 5.20, and I drink my coffee in relative peace (while Florence the cat shoves her feeder against the wall to get fresher food). I’ve instituted a rule: I have to do One Good Thing for myself before I go to work at 8 am. By 6 am, I’m writing or gearing up for a run or walk. Sometimes I update my budget or work on my website. The point is, when I get to work, I’m ready to do stuff for someone else because I’ve already taken care of myself. Turning my brain on is always the first step.

I’m not the only one who believes in the power of mornings. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes about the concept of Morning Pages: “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it . . .. Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream of consciousness.” Some of my closest friends swear by this practice. They have journals upon journals of things like, “I wish I were asleep, but since I’m not, I guess I’ll write in this dumb notebook. Blah blah blah what a beautiful sunrise,” or something more creative and profound probably. I myself have never committed to Morning Pages, because they always ended up looking like that previous quotation, but I find my system of One Good Thing retrieves my creativity for the day.

If longhand writing isn’t for you, there are other ways to get moving in the morning. The usual suspects: exercise, reading, doodling, or catching up on emails from friends. I know a couple that, every morning, would read off a list of personal questions (What would you do if you found a million dollars today? Where would your perfect vacation spot be?) to help differentiating themselves from each other and to explore their own sense of self. Using questions like these as writing prompts or food for thought could be helpful.

For people who can’t get the creative or imaginative juices flowing in the morning, don’t despair. Mark Twain saw mornings as a time to rise and shine and get something hard out of the way. “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning: If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first,” he advises. Sometimes self-care is paying a nagging bill before it bugs you all day. Sometimes it means putting your dishes in the dishwasher so you don’t come home to a full sink (or so I hear – this is not my practice. I love to be greeted by a full sink, personally! Hello, little buddy). Sometimes it means clearing out your inbox. Sometimes it means putting on your bib and eating a slimy, juicy frog.

I find that I am more awake, more positive, and more productive because of my One Good Thing rule. Today’s good thing? Writing this post and working on my website. The dishes will have to wait.

Have you read my blog?

“You should start yoga!” said just about everyone.

Yoga is a centering activity that stretches and strengthens the body and soothes the mind… unless you’re me. If you’re me, yoga is a stressful activity that allows strangers to see how little control you have over your own body.

Yoga was one suggestion during the rough patch that was my June and July of 2016. There was also gardening (too many factors at play, too many allergies); journaling (feelings? That’s what Peach is for); more therapy (they should give me a frequent flyer discount); swimming; Crossfit; Dungeons and Dragons; Tinder; NOT Tinder; melatonin; tea. All of these suggestions, as well-meant as the last, were not quite what I needed.

In my past, I had gotten extremely good at self-care. I painted. I ran. I slept 8 hours. I went to therapy. I cooked new dishes. I made smoothies. I said no. I said yes. I was gentle with myself. By 2016, those muscles had melted into cooked noodles. When I hit an obstacle in my relationship and found myself temporarily unpartnered, I looked around for my old practices but found ghosts. Where there were once smoothies, there was wine. Where there was once alone time, there was marathon socializing. Where there was once running, there was a short walk to spend 5 more dollars on fizzy water. So much fizzy water. My body and my mind were mushy, undisciplined, and unkempt.

The rough patch became a smooth patch, the relationship repaired and filled with new dynamism – but I am left missing my old practices. One of my most beloved self-care activities was my blog, make. It helped me stay motivated in my creative endeavors and it helped me connect with people I loved and people I didn’t yet know.

Blogs are cheesy – Blogs have become the “have you listened to my band?” of the internet. But for me, a blog was a tool to share my writing, push myself, and keep track of my progress. So here I am. Have you read my blog?

Somewhere between weekly and daily, I’ll be using this space as a chronicle of my efforts in self-care. Thanks but no thanks to yoga.