Eliminating the fear of one’s voice.

Imagine with me: you’re making home movies with a video camera, or maybe playing with the little doohickey on your laptop. You get wrapped up in the fun of goofing off with friends and/or family. You laugh boisterously. You are loud, to keep your sister from making a point that would jokingly embarrass you. You interrupt. You cram brownies into your mouth with ferocious intensity. You squirm out of playfully constrictive hugs. The conversational tone veers into the somber, and you speak your mind honestly, earnestly, unfiltered, and without concern for judgment because you are surrounded by accepting ears.

Later you review the footage and you are horrified.

“Is that me? That’s what I sound like? That’s my voice?”

Your sibling nods. If you have no siblings, imagine your companion animal. If you have no companions, imagine your mail carrier.

“No. No. No it’s not. Shut up.”

Oh, keep watching. There’s more.

“Why hasn’t anyone told me I flail my arms like that? I didn’t even know I gestured when I spoke, I swear I didn’t. I look like I’m attempting flight. And what is this—is that me laughing? Have mercy.”

There is no end to the horror of discovering yourself as others see you, or at least your perception of how they see you.

I’d posit that the same thing happens when you step back and take a good look at your own writing. In fact, I touched on this subject in a previous entry when I detailed the first time I had such an experience. There’s a difference though, between watching your image captured in moving pictures and “hearing” your literary voice captured in static letters. A crucial difference, even.

Quirks are quirks, tics are tics. Crooked smiles and asymmetrical eyebrows and spaghetti noodle arms make you you, and they neither can nor should be changed. But the fluidity of one’s written essence, the nuance and richness with which you approach the process… these things convey skill, learning. Discipline. They have meaning, on a computer screen and in the real world. And so, even the simplest of musings can become a scale on which your intellectual heft is measured, even if others judge only subconsciously.

What this can then boil down to is a paralyzing fear of writing in ways that reveal fundamental shortcomings in one’s understanding of the craft, the human condition, the world—feel free to fill in the blank there.

I (we? All of us?) don’t want to sound ridiculous. Or uneducated. Or stupid, at worst, because really, how many people are above calling someone else stupid for any reason? Someone thinks I’m stupid.

Unlike noticing that your eyes blink at slightly different times or that you are doing a far worse job concealing your carb-fiendishness than you ever imagined, ignorance of the mechanics of life can and should be changed. Some of this is accomplished just by being alive I guess, but the rest probably requires the active, constant exposure of actually living, and wanting to know what “being” means for other people. This is especially true if you write. Right? Right. How else would you write about people?

But what, then, to do with the reality that we have gone this far with these words only to learn that the foundation of authenticity on which those words rest is so unstable that they crumble beneath the weight of our naïveté? What do you do with the burning of that embarrassment clawing at the surface of your skin, at the knowledge that your art betrays you? How am I supposed to move forward when I know I sound like that? Like I’ve got as much of a handle on the gravity of this material as I might have on, say, a working fire hose?

Congratulations! you say to yourself. You are poorly informed. You are arrogant. You are a little naïve. You are young. You are in some ways socially inept. You didn’t do enough research before you wrote that. You weren’t emotionally honest with yourself when you wrote that. You won’t really experience what you’re describing for another couple of years. You are forgetting what you learned in 11th grade U.S. history. You are forgetting to set the DVR to record Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Yes, we’re still speaking hypothetically. Hush.

So the “what to do” thing: maybe… just kind of be okay with it? I guess? Maybe?

Maybe there’s an art to learning to live with being seen, and likely being judged, for everything you are, actually are, and not the things you’ve carefully constructed as you grasp at the heels of the complexity and sophistication you aspire to. I say that because I just realized that the title of this post is unintentionally misleading. “Eliminating” fear. I don’t know if this is a fear you can really eliminate. If I knew how to do that I wouldn’t have written about it. I’m just typing to myself, thinking aloud on paper on screen. I think I’m learning that you can only learn to let go, accept that what you’ve produced is all you (and hopefully the best of you), and stop sweating the inevitability of plainly not knowing something. Do your best, and appreciate your psyche, place in life, and who you are in that moment for what it is.

So yeah, uh, I’ll let you know when I figure out how to do that.

When is finished really finished, anyway?

A couple of days ago I wondered if displaying my work in progress was a good idea. Almost immediately, I began to wonder how much of my work was really in progress. (The truth: a lot of it.) Sometimes I write things and sit on them. Whenever I open up an old piece, I always find things about it that can be changed. I hear this isn’t uncommon, but I’m under the impression that most writers can at least find a certain amount of approval with a piece once they reach its end. For me, nothing ever feels finished, or at least good enough in its finished form.

How do you know when a piece really still needs work, and when you really just need to step away from it, and let it be whatever it’s become? Do I keep tinkering away because it really isn’t finished, or because I can’t stop editing and nitpicking what I’ve completed, and as a result remain perpetually dissatisfied?

There’s probably a little of both happening, but the nitpicking/editing-while-writing is easily among my most crippling tendencies. I won’t have anything to work with if I can’t stop hindering myself before I ever get it done. The editing can come after I have a complete product. I know this, but that doesn’t seem to change the habit.

I am getting better about it, though. Awareness of the problem helps tremendously. I guess we’ll see how much I improve over the next few weeks, as I work to reel it in.

Two times I felt helpless.

1. There was a point in time, not all that long ago, when my mom and I lived with my sister, brother-in-law, and my then-newborn niece in their condo.

I don’t remember if the sound woke me up, or if I was already awake, but I heard it. It sounded distant, maybe a few blocks away in any direction. “Help!” It was a man’s voice, probably, elevated in a gut-wrenching shriek unlike anything I’d ever heard with my own two ears. “Help!”

Sleep is an impossibility with a sound that terrifying trickling into your ears, so I listened, thinking it would stop at some point. Surely someone screaming at the top of his lungs for help would eventually receive it— and in a hurry, one would assume.

But it went on. On and on. I have no idea how long, but it felt like at least twenty minutes. I wondered, Why won’t someone do something?

I actually got up and looked out of my second-story window, wondering if this person was anywhere nearby, in the condo complex maybe. The thing about the complex, though, is that the condos didn’t face the street. The front of the buildings were turned inward, perpendicular from the main thoroughfare, and faced each other. I couldn’t see anything except the shared driveway and the drawn curtains across the way.

Should I call the police? I thought. What could I possibly say? “Yeah, um, there’s someone screaming for help. Somewhere. Nearby. I have no idea where, though. I live off of Main Street. Does that help?”

Now, I don’t know. I’m guessing that there is actually a range of possible explanations and outcomes for this situation. It could have just been a drunken incident, though “help” is a pretty serious thing to scream. Maybe he stopped because he actually got some help. But I don’t know, and I never will.

I’ve always felt guilty about that. I don’t know what I could have done though.

2. I think it was the Fourth of July. It must have been, because I know it was a holiday in the summer requiring the purchase of barbecue vittles. My sister and I went to Safeway to grab some extra things we’d forgotten to purchase earlier in the week. She was also going to buy strawberries, shortcakes, and the whipped cream that she always leaves in our parents’ fridge to go to waste, every year. None of us eat whipped cream.

The store was packed, naturally. We wove in and out of the parking lot aisles, waiting for someone to pull out. Maybe 10 minutes later, a spot was in the process of opening up, closer to the back of the lot. Fine with us. We waited patiently as a petite woman popped her trunk and started transferring her purchases into it a bag at a time. She took her time, which for some reason seems to be the tendency when you know there are people waiting for you. Her cart stood somewhere behind her, with the long basket-end closer to her and the handlebar and toddler seat just out of her reach. Her purse sat in the toddler seat.

A few feet behind the woman was a man on a bicycle.

I’m sure you know what happens next.

The man idled briefly on his bike, and I thought he was just taking a breathing. For a second he eyed my sister and I. We both made eye contact with this dude. There’s no way to describe these moments without making them sound drawn out, but I swear, it all happened in a few blinks’ worth of time. While the woman’s back was completely turned to the cart, the man on the bike rushed forward and snatched the purse out of the toddler seat. He made a loop and pedaled away like he was out to win the Tour de France. Like it was the next thing on his To-Do List. Steal purse. Win race. Bake cookies.

You know when something so shocking happens that you can’t even get complete words out of your mouth for a couple seconds? Yeah. Complete disbelief. We looked at each other just to confirm that it had really happened. Amazingly, the woman had no idea what had just occurred. For a few moments the inside of our car was nothing but shouts and windmilling arms, all to get the woman’s attention. We had to honk before she finally looked at us, and then gesture wildly at the empty space in the cart.

I’ll never forget the hurt look on her face when the situation finally dawned on her. She burst into tears.

The police were called. We stayed, told the officer everything we’d seen. But that woman was never going to get her purse back, and the officer said as much from the word go. A simple holiday afternoon for her was now a day to be spent contacting the bank, canceling cards, and planning to replace her license, phone, and who knows what else. I felt awful. I wished I could have done something more. I wish I’d seen that man on the bike and done something before he even moved forward. We should have honked sooner, gotten the woman’s attention and scared him off. I should have known, I thought, seen it coming. I felt bad, but I can’t imagine how she must have felt.

It’s for my benefit. Really.

Honest question: is it okay to put up a bibliography of work for yourself even if some (most? almost all?) of the work is still in progress, and none of the work is published?

Just wondering.

Anyway, last night I was agitated in much the same way I’d been the night/morning before. The only difference was that I acted like a big girl and went to bed at a reasonable time. Didn’t stop me from waking up at odd hours. Twelve, four. It’s like my subconscious was telling me, “Aren’t we usually awake at this hour? Wait, are you doing that ‘acting normal’ thing again? …Good luck with that.”

I’m in the process of channeling this frenetic energy into something meaningful, but the universe doesn’t seem to be moving as fast as my mind wants it to. I’m caught between an  uncharacteristic satisfaction with my material and a strange frustration in my inability to get it out fast enough. My page count, word count, words per minute are all just not enough for me. This means that next time I post it may or may not be something on the more fictional end of the spectrum. More likely, it might just mean that I’ll put up that bibliography, for purely motivational and/or self-indulgent reasons. Maybe if I make them visible, tangible in that way, then they’ll all actually kind of happen.

*cough*And because I’ve always been good at fantasizing about achievements I haven’t quite achieved.

Crushing blocks with a fist.

Last night. This morning. Let me tell you about it.

I crawled into bed at around 6 am. I’d spent much of the night with my not-terribly-secret lover, Youtube. We laughed together while I clicked through a maze of old comedy and music videos posted by my favorite independent musician. We teared up together, just a little, when I somehow fell into a strange string of emergency 911 dispatch videos, including a darling one made by a five-year-old who reassured her father with the calmest “Don’t worry, Dad” ever. I also discovered a new musician through the old one and got lost in his old videos too. Dude’s posted over 400. Yeah. I’m still a little concerned about losing future nights to this guy’s work. I hate days like this, tripped up in the fog of self-imposed exhaustion, but old habits die hard.

It was still dark, so I tried to trick myself into berating myself a little less than usual over my largely aimless all-nighter. I put my head to my pillow, surrounded my face with blankets to block out the impending sunlight, and closed my eyes. My head buzzed and my eyes flickered behind my lids. I was still kind of amped, slow cooking on HI.

Watching YT musicians isn’t a complete waste; it does tend to strike an inspirational chord for me, even though writers and musicians are obviously two different kinds of artists. I’d been trying to get myself to write every day with more balance, more acceptance of what I accomplish (or fail to accomplish) at the end of a writing session. Not just fiction either, but more of this, more of the conversations with myself that I’ve fallen out of practice with. I lay in the dark this morning thinking about what would come next. I don’t quite remember what the first flash of inspiration was, but I turned on the light to write it down in the notebook I keep beside my bed. Then I turned it off and stuffed the blankets up around me again. Maybe that would steady the tremble I felt like I’d developed.

Oh, another prompt to scribble down. I knew I wouldn’t remember it when I woke up, and I knew that thinking about forgetting it would bother me so much that I would struggle to fall asleep. So I turned the light on again and scrawled the thought. The light seeping through my blinds bled from dark blue to pale.

It happened again. And again and again. I didn’t keep perfect track, but judging just from the number of thoughts I got down, I turned the light on and off no fewer than fifteen times. I got in seven pages of material. I haven’t reread through all of them, but one of them sticks out to me: “I’m afraid for when this sudden burst of ideas goes away.”

All of a sudden I wanted to write everything. I wanted to share everything. And every idea I had was a good one, or one with potential. Every thought I had was too precious to lose to sleep because I’ve been so hard up for motivating ideas that I refused to let any go. If I hadn’t been so tired, and if I hadn’t rationally known that I needed to catch at least a few Zs if I wanted to even pretend to function, then I’d have run right back out to the keyboard and pounded out something, anything.

The last time I looked at the clock just before finally reaching unconsciousness, it was after 8 am.

Having nothing to do today, I woke up around 12:30. My near-uncontainable enthusiasm about the things I wrote in that notebook has settled, but my overall optimism about what I might accomplish while in Starman–mode again is still there, somewhere behind the dark eye circles.

So we’ll see.

Return from Hiatusville (?)

So, yeah, that was a long time away.

I supposed I could have updated in between, but I felt my posts would have been boring and redundant (So today mostly sat around thinking about what I needed to accomplish with my projects after I squeezed a little in this morning. Just like yesterday, and the day before…). I have an array of interesting projects that need finishing, and I’m happy to say that I’m working on all of them. There’s nothing really stopping posts from being boring and redundant, but now I feel too compelled to write in general to worry about that. :)

Basically, exciting things abound. Looking forward to progressing and discussing them here.