Discover more from Tiny Revolutions
Tiny Revolutions №99: Part of the Dance
+ how do you live with certain annihilation?
Greetings from a cold and rainy Los Angeles, where I’m just getting my head back together after a trip to Mexico. I mentioned this last time I wrote to you, but my year started with a bang — as part of Foster Season 2, I’ve been coaching writers and also gave a workshop about Uncovering Stories Only You Can Tell.
The season culminated in a retreat in Puerto Escondido, on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. Landing there was a mindfuck because I felt like I’d gone back in time. I spent a good chunk of my 20’s traveling in bohemian beach towns like this one — places in Australia, Thailand, Costa Rica, and Mexico where many of the roads aren’t paved and figuring out how to get around, often without speaking the language, is as much the province of good navigation as a leap of faith.
I haven’t done much of that style of travel in the last ten years or so, and I’d missed it. I’ve always liked the feeling of not knowing where I am, exactly. Both as a way to test myself — can I figure out how to get by in this place full of strangers? — and a way to indulge my seemingly unkillable thirst for wildness and novelty.
It was fitting that being in Puerto Escondido had a timewarp feeling to it. I’d felt that way while working with the writers all season as well. There were a fair amount of them who’d been at it for a while, but most of the people I worked with were pretty new to the craft and SO EXCITED about it. Which was wonderful. You can really help someone in that stage, you know? They have that boundless beginner’s energy, so they soak up every bit of wisdom and knowledge you can pass along. That’s just fun if you’re in a teaching position.
But I also found the experience bittersweet, because just like I miss the me who was traipsing around the tropics with a backpack in my 20’s, I also miss the me who was gung ho about learning the craft of writing. There was a period from about 2008-2017 when I went hard at it. I wrote every day, took a ton of workshops, went to lots of readings, and met with a group of writers weekly for years. I loved it.
And then I backed off and got interested in other stuff. I kept writing of course, but it wasn’t the same. I knew at that point that getting good at writing — well, as good as I wanted to be — was a long game.
Coincidentally, I got a new computer recently and have been doing some light housekeeping to get rid of old files and programs I don’t use anymore.
As part of that effort, I came across this little rant that, according to Evernote, I wrote in June of 2013:
I'm so sick of reading about writing. The craft of writing. The business of writing. The routines of other writers. The successes and failures. The brilliance of this person and that. For an aspiring writer, I feel like I've hit a saturation point in terms of learning what it takes to be a successful writer, which, I've come to understand, is completely different in the eyes of every single person who has ever committed a sentence to paper and who has any ambition whatsoever to have it read by another person, and also which is thoroughly unattainable in any writers' own eyes. Because it seems like every single writer I’ve come across is to some degree unhappy with their own level of success. It's never enough. And if it's never enough for everyone from Hemingway to David Foster Wallace to Philip Roth to Dan Brown to Virginia Wolff to Jonathan Franzen to anyone else you could possibly think of, what hope do you, the person who's just embarking upon what you hope could be, in the end, even considered a writing career. Yes, yes, you just have to do it the best you can and not expect for much to come of it, you do it for the pleasure of writing, for the pleasure of discovery, but still. It's exhausting and the word "daunting" doesn't even begin to cover it.
So much of the writing process is just grinding it out and seeing what sticks, but when you are, as I have been since I was able to make sense of words and sentences, a person who practically absorbs information without even trying to (Novels! Essays! Billboards! Food packaging! News articles! Headlines! Tweets! Status updates! Everything!), the real challenge becomes finding the point at which you have to shut it all out. Of course it is easy to blame this on the Internet, but even before then I would have found enough information floating in the everyday ether to be distracted by it.
I'm always a little horrified by the writers I've met who say they don't read much, or that they didn't start reading a lot ‘til later. Who the fuck are you, I think, to be writing anything? And why would you even embark upon such an insane endeavor? But then I think, well, there's a huge advantage to not knowing the greatness that you're up against. Your ignorance prevents you from being intimidated by it. And therefore you haven't defeated yourself before you've begun.
Alas, I am in the opposite camp. My goal for the last few years has been "less consumption, more production," but that is a fierce, fierce struggle for a person who is scared shitless of even summoning the courage to think she has something to say. And then, once I get there, there with the courage, I mean, then I actually have to do the real work. It takes work to get to the work is what I'm saying. I know well that my efforts may be futile, and in a world where time is money and money is the enabler of life, the struggle becomes that much more dire.
I envy the ballsy ones, the ones who just go for it. I'm trying. Some days I succeed, some days I don't. Some weeks I don't. What I want now is just to stop letting all this writerly info to stop coming in, because lately I'm losing the battle. What I am thinking I'll try is to just start writing scenes from life everyday. Using the mantra I got from, instead of just reading about craft or about how other writers have made their mark, I'll just keep a blow by blow account of the little things I witness, and see if, as Strayed says, "the useless days will add up to something."
And then I went on to describe an idea for a new blog project I never ended up starting.
In a word? WOOF.
The bitterness! The fear, the looming sense of doom and defeat! Yow, it is all there. But what is also there, and this is what makes me want to go back and give the me of June 2013 a big hug, is hope. I never started that new project, but I wanted to. I believed somewhere under all that cynicism that I could “make it” as a writer somehow.
And now here I am 10 years later and I have, for the most part. Maybe I’m no Cheryl Strayed, but I make a living through my mind and my words, and that seemed impossible to me at the time.
I’ve actually been going back to a lot of my old work in the past few weeks and finding that that looming sense of fear and bitterness is threaded throughout it. It’s a bummer to see it, because a lot of that work is sharp and well-observed. But it was also drowning in misery and negativity, and that was because *I* was drowning in misery and negativity.
Back in my heavy “I want to be a writer!” days, I spent about a year obsessively reading Joan Didion — Slouching Towards Bethlehem in particular. One of her most famous essays, On Keeping a Notebook, has a line in it that still comes to me all the time:
We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.
It’s been painful to me to go back and read old work that lays bare all that suffering specific to my former self. Didion was right: I do not, in fact, find that person attractive company. Didion was also right, however, that I’m better off being on nodding terms with her.
She is, after all, me. I have all those fears still. I have all that bitterness and probably a lot more I’ve picked up in the ensuing years. But she is also not me. And if I’m aware of her, her fears, her bitterness, her tendency to sink into self-pity instead of doing the grown up thing of accepting reality and just getting on with it, I can make that choice.
I’ve thought for years that there would come a time when I would go back and dust some of those essays off — I have an entire manuscript full, most of which never made it outside of a writing workshop — and publish them with some light edits, but having this experience made me realize I just need to let them go.
It’s like I told my writers all season in Foster: it’s a long game we’re playing here. And there is always time to start anew. I for one am excited I rediscovered the ambitious young writer in me who wants to be heard and produce phenomenal work, and I can’t wait to see what we do together.
On to some things I found worth sharing…
Speaking of Joan Didion!
I also came across a note on my computer with some quotes I jotted down when I saw her on book tour in 2011 for her memoir Blue Nights, which was about the death of her daughter at 39. Sometimes I think this question is all I ever write about, too.
A book recommendation!
When asked “Why is man on earth?” Pythagoras answered: “To observe the heavens.” To observe the heavens? If that’s true, most people don’t know it. Most people believe they’re on earth to find love, get rich, wield power, promote growth, or otherwise leave their mark on the sands of time. People who know they’re here to observe the heavens are rare. If you’re not one yourself, you can count yourself lucky to know one. It expands your horizons.
This is from Emmanuel Carrère’s excellent novel Yoga, which is not about yoga, per se, but about life and change and becoming who you are, which is many things that both defy and invite description. It’s a book that’s stirred controversy as it is autobiographical, but I admire it for capturing so many of of the fleeting thoughts I’ve had during and about the practice of meditation, and, yes, yoga. Thanks to fellow Substacker Agnes fromfor seeing that this book was right up my alley and telling me so.
An interesting way to stay on nodding terms with the people we used to be!
FutureMe is free to use.
A fucking great Twitter thread about defeating the invincible winter within!
Just click in and read it already.
And just a quote I love!
You can do it like it's a great weight on you, or you can do it like it's part of the dance.
- Ram Dass
Let’s all dance this week, friends.
Thanks for reading, as ever. See you next time.
p.s. Tiny Revolutions is free to read but if you’d like to support my work, please share this with someone who’d appreciate it, or just like this post!
Thanks for reading Tiny Revolutions! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.