Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Want to put your true self into the world? (Making true allies and friends!)

Dear Readers,

A conversation I had several years ago haunts me in the best of ways. It was with a Goddard advisor (professor), back when I was a Creative Writing MFA student. During a break, in between lectures, I approached her.
She must have been talking about the courage needed to write difficult material, because I remember being moved enough to say, “I’m so scared that the me my friends and family know is not the me in my work. I’m afraid that if I publish, they will hate me.”
I’ve always been able to blend in socially, but—halfway through the MFA experience—I was learning that writing something good is the exact opposite of blending in, that being an artist means taking risks, making yourself vulnerable, and sometimes sacrificing social alliances in search of your own personal truths.
Writing (especially publishing) is sticking out.
            The advisor laughed knowingly, as if she had seen the look on my face many times before, and she said something reassuring like, “If you publish, your parents will be proud of you. If not immediately, then in the long run. Having a published author in the family is quite a thing. And your friends are the people who make you feel as though you can do the work you feel called to do. If they make you feel otherwise, they’re not your friends.”
            Back when I was at Goddard, I was groping, trying clumsily to figure out who I was, what type of writer I wanted to be—hoping to establish some sort of identity.
            I was reading Haruki Murakami and Gao Xingjian and experimenting with the absurdist genre. I told myself that I was high-minded, literary—that I was pushing myself. But really, I was hoping to impress my advisors; I was imitating, writing what I thought creative writing students should write. Or maybe I was just hiding.
            Every now and then I wrote something that scared the shit out of me.
            At first, these terrifying pieces were personal essays I typed while feeling emotionally vulnerable and/or upset. I remember writing one after having an argument with a friend, and another after a disagreement with a family member. I didn’t really think about what I should have been writing or how my words would be perceived. I just allowed myself to write the truth—or maybe my truth—without censoring myself. These essays were written rather quickly, and while I did edit and shape afterward, the first drafts were not so different from the final product, and came much easier than the work I labored over with my advisors and yet somehow never seemed to get right.
            When I started to submit my personal essays to literary magazines, I was hopeful, but there was part of me that never believed the pieces would ever be published. So when a few were accepted, I suffered crippling anxiety attacks.
            I worried that I had erred somehow by committing all of my innermost thoughts—what most people keep to themselves—to the page. Mostly, I worried that there would be consequences for expressing myself honestly, especially since I had written about my personal life.
            Alicia (my wife, AKA Al) has always been my sanity. During those first few publishing induced freak-outs, I asked her a series of questions. They are the same questions I ask her whenever I am about to publish (and inevitably freak out).
            ME: Am I insane?
            Alicia: No.
            ME: Is the piece good enough?
            Al: They wouldn’t be publishing it if it weren’t.
            ME: Is it authentically me?
            Al: I wouldn’t have let you send it out if it weren’t.
            ME: Is everything going to be okay?
            Al: I can’t promise you that.
            ME: Why not?
            Al: I’m not God.
            ME: Do you think anyone will be pissed?
            Al: Who knows? Maybe.
            ME: WHAT? You’re supposed to say no!
            Al: I’m not going to lie to you. People are unpredictable. Good work usually challenges, divides, takes people out of their comfort zones, creates debate. Not everyone likes that.
ME: Are people going to hate me?
            Al: You did the best you could and wrote as honestly as possible. The people who truly know you and love you for who you are will always understand and support you.
            That last Al answer is a big one.
            When I look back at all I have written since 2004, I’ve come to believe that the small percentage of work I’ve managed to publish is the most accurate expression of me—and that fact is not coincidental.
            A few people along the way—friends, family members, and strangers—didn’t like what I published for various reasons. I’ve lost a few close friends. There have definitely been some rough patches, which I will tell you about later on.
Turns out, my parents are proud of my work and me. They struggled with some of it, were surprised at times because the me they saw on the page was not always the me they thought they knew. I’ve had some difficult conversations with my mother, regarding my work, but I’ve managed to let my family know who I truly am—a sensitive guy who struggles with anxiety issues, who likes to drink whiskey, whose mind takes him through great highs and lows, who feels the world strongly (maybe too strongly), and who has a lot of questions. Being honest about it all, expressing myself has definitely been good for my mental health.
My religious grandmother crossed out all of the curse words in THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK before she lent it to her friends, but she read it and felt proud enough to share it with others, which sort of amazes me.
I have a core group of friends who show up to all of my events, even though they aren’t big readers and may or may not care for my work.
When you choose the life of an artist, you definitely leave people behind.
But you also move closer toward other like-minded individuals.
My work has put me in contact with writers who understand my need to do what I do, people who have the same strong impulse.
When THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK was published in the UK, British novelist, Liz Jensen, wrote a line of praise. Through Picador I sent Liz a thank-you e-mail. To my surprise, she wrote back.
So I read her fantastic book THE NINTH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX and let her know what I thought via e-mail.
Liz wrote back again and an international friendship was hatched.
I’ve been exchanging e-mails with Liz for more than two years now.
We live in different countries.
We were born in different decades.
We’ve had very different life experiences.
But when her husband, Carsten Jensen—who wrote the amazing must-read WE, THE DROWNED—was on book tour last week here in the US, Liz decided to drop in on us for two days, by way of Buffalo, and the conversation never once slowed.
For 48 hours we talked writing and publishing.
We read each other’s work.
We laughed.
We drank much wine.
We ate good food.
We Skyped with Carsten.
And when I put Liz on a train to NYC last Friday, I felt a strong happy sadness.
Sad that our visit had ended so quickly.
Happy that putting my work into the world has led to such a good unlikely friendship, making me feel less alone.
I thought about how terrified I was back at Goddard—how expressing my truths seemed so dangerous. And yet, by facing my fears, putting myself into the world, I made some real connections and some unlikely allies.
            How many of you are feeling tempted to put your true self into the world?
To express yourself honestly?
To write?
To publish?
Who will you meet when you decide to face your fears and commit to honesty?
Maybe your best friend, your most trusted allies are waiting out there, hungry for your manuscript!
            Check back on Thursday, May 12th and I will introduce you to another novelist I met via my UK publishing experience. He’s a good man and he has a fantastic story to share with you.
To be continued, and please keep being you.
Want to read a good book?
To buy Liz Jensen’s THE NINTH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX hit one of the following links: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Borders / Indiebound / Powell’s
To buy Carsten Jensen’s WE, THE DROWNED: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Borders / Indiebound / Powell’s


Scott Humfeld said...

One of the themes here is risk taking. If one writes with complete honesty one takes the risk of affecting personal relationships and the risk of feedback that can be painful. But there are also many things to be gained by taking risks as well. What are your thoughts on that?

Q said...

I definitely believe that risk is essential. We often blend in because doing so is the safest option. But creating and then fighting to get your story attention will definitely make you vulnerable, no matter how talented you are. No risk, no reward, right? It's true.

Q said...

I should add that you can blend in with a writing or artistic herd too. Taking a risk means becoming vulnerable, doing what won't necessarily provide you with safety.

Alicia said...

Stepping away from the herd (any herd to which you belong, be it professional, familial, social, or hobbyist) takes courage. Often when I write, I can't find my courage, and I ask myself, "Who am I to make this claim? Who am I to call myself a writer?" The answer is something I heard in yoga class years ago; the instructor was quoting a poet -- I've forgotten which poet -- when she said, essentially, that the members of the herd tend to criticize the individual who steps away. "The herd members will say, 'Who are you to step away from us?' Well, who are you NOT to?" The point being, man up! Or, woman up! (Easier said than done, isn't it?!)

PK said...

I also feel tempted to put my true self into the world, through my writing, perhaps getting more into photography as well - like you at Goddard, I'm still not sure what it is exactly I want to do with myself. But I'm closer than I was when I left the US almost 2 years ago. Looking back, I feel like I was quite lost then, my head full of other people's voices telling me what I should do with with my life. I've found that in the process of moving away from all that, and making some real choices based on my own desires, there's been a greater and greater need for self-expression. But when it comes to putting things I've written onto a blog, or pitching to editors, I've also had all kinds of scared shitless moments. Will people think this is good, or will they think it sucks, or will it make the people that are close to me uncomfortable? Only lately do I feel like I have more confidence and courage to not care as much about all of these things and just write how I feel.

In the process of blogging, pitching articles, etc., I've also been meeting some very cool people that I would not be meeting otherwise. No risk, no reward. Truer words were never spoken Mr. Humfeld.

Q said...

You are closer than you think, Young PK.

Q said...

Al, who are you NOT to? Damn right!

Greg Gutierrez said...

Thanks Matt,


Anonymous said...

another great blog matt, and it's a relief to read the comments and see others who have gone through similar things. I may do music, as opposed to prose, but the feeling is similar in many ways. In my experience it's been really important and helpful to have people close to you who will 1. take the time to read/listen to your work and 2. be cool enough to give you an honest critique about it, good or bad. I think the question shouldn't be, 'will this offend people?', it should be 'is this truthful and/or worthwhile?' It's amazing how confident you can feel about something while working on it, and then how scared you can be once it's released to the outside world. Having someone you trust to give you some sort of litmus test always helps to put it into perspective. Then, if others get bent out of shape, it's a bit easier to take, atleast in my experience.

You mentioned writing in an 'emotionally vulnerable' state...do you find you do your best work when you're feeling that way?

Q said...

You are welcome, G. And thanks, Anonymous! I think my best work comes when I am digging deep...going to the places I can't always go. I think art comes from a need to make order out of chaos, and so art usually happens when we are feeling a little chaotic. Or maybe that's just me.

Jennifer Buehler said...

This post speaks to me in many ways. Thank you.

Q said...

So glad, Jennifer. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Heather Leah said...

Q...you've done it again...made me teary eyed...said exactly what I need to hear in the moment I need it the most...made me feel less alone. The work of a writer is solitary; it's oftentimes scary; it's the work people say they want to do but then are too afraid to do it. That's what you give people through your words. Yes, you give them the authentic you, but you also give them the authentic them! Thanks for this and for all your words. You are a true inspiration!

Q said...

Thanks, Heather. You're the best! Thanks also for helping me figure out the comments section!

Billy Anonymous said...

Agreed Matt, though it would be nice if we did our best work when everything was going really well!

...Billy Anonymous

Megan said...

I'm not a writer.. (far from it I'm in the medical field where straying from the norm requires scientific proof and lots of research.) But I appreciated Matts honesty. This is something many of us struggle with... finding ourselves and our voice. You run into so many people in life who want you to conform to their view point, rather than trying to understand your own... and encourage you to voice it.
I think what Al said is so true. Who are you not to step away from the herd.. because in reality you are causing everyone else to look at things differently.. you're challenging them. Some people don't like that. But I know I'm thankful (sometimes in hindsight) for the people who have done that for me.

Q said...

Thanks, Meg!

Anonymous said...

This risk taking bleeds into so many areas of people's lives. No matter what it is you decide to value, express, work toward, there will be people who think it is all a waste. They want you to value what they value and, especially family, might be hurt or disapointed with the direction you decided to head in if it doesn't go where they think it should.
I've come to the point in life where I know I am happy with what I am doing (love what you do and you never work a day in your life and all that), and I know it only hurts them b/c they cannot let themselves appreciate what I am doing. It is not truly hurting them, it is not done with the intent to pain them. None of us can please all and once this is accepted -well, it makes it much easier to smile and nod.