F is for Fear, Fantasy, and Failure

What keeps us in something longer than we know is good for us? Friends, I know so many smart, educated, brilliant women who have stayed in relationships far longer than warranted, far longer than was safe, physically, emotionally.

The reasons we stay are as varied as our individual lives, but I would posit that we stay because we are afraid to fail, terrified to admit we haven’t lived up to the cultural fantasy of what marriage and family should be.

I know that fear ruled many of my relationships, one set of fears put me there and another set kept me in them beyond the “best by” date.

I’ve found myself explaining my past a lot lately—funny how potential partners want to know what happened, really, that a gem such as myself should suddenly be single and available now (LOL, I really crack myself up).

What drove me to settle down at 23 and become a parent before I turned 30? Fear. Fantasy.

How did it come to be that I put my need to be loved above my children’s needs in my next relationship? Fear. Fantasy.

How, pray tell, does a 58-year-old still grocery shop and eat like a five-year-old with a credit card? Fear. Fantasy. Seriously.

Dates, even phone dates, have so many questions. And rightly so. We all have arrived in this same space, these boxes on the internet where we are all putting our very best hiking-boot-clad feet forward, vying for the last Fine woman out there. Trying to remember what landed us here and worrying that the others all have the exact same traumas and baggage, fearful we will miss the obvious warning signs.

We are afraid, or at least I know I am. Of one another. Of scammers. Of being alone into our dotages. Of more disappointment. Of being hurt yet again.

We believe the fantasy is possible (and we should, we have to). I desperately want to believe. We want someone to wrap ourselves around on a lazy Sunday morning. Someone to smooth our hair from our foreheads when we struggle, someone to tell us it is okay, that we are okay. That it’s going to be okay.

Humans are wired for connection. We do better in relationships than we do alone. Studies show, that just like children can best self-regulate when a parent functions as a secure base, so do adults in solid relationships. But it takes more than fantasy to create relationships that allow us to flourish. It takes a belief in ourselves as deserving.

Just another suburban soccer mom

I settled down at 23 because I was afraid my parents would never accept me if I wasn’t as “normal” (i.e. as close to heteronormative, though in 1986 that was not a thing) as possible. How better to convince them with than a wife, a nice house, a good job (well, speaking of fantasies), and a couple of kids? It worked, too, btw.

I believed the fantasy that I could live as less than authentically myself in order to fit in. And boy, I gave it a good run.

Fear drove me into my next relationship as well. Fear of so many things, but mostly fear of never finding happiness again after losing custody of my children. I was so afraid I’d miss out on their lives that I failed to notice entire bouquets of red flags. And fantasy kept me there—the fantasy that I could sublimate my needs indefinitely in order to create an illusion of success and happiness. I did that well, too.

And it wasn’t all bad. I have my girls—the reasons I kept on keeping on through it all. I had some fun. We threw some epic parties. I made terrific friends along the way—I found my people, and my people helped me find my way.

I learned I am okay exactly how I am. I was okay before the pandemic. I am emerging from it intact. If I come out of it with a partner, so be it. If I don’t, that’s okay too, because I am Fine. Better than fine. Fabulous.

H is for Honesty (in Writing and in Life)

Write as if your parents are dead. –Anne Lamott

When I attended AWP last month, in nearly every session someone asked some version of this question: “How can I write my story without hurting the other people in my life?” Other versions of this question include something like the following:

“How do you deal with your parents getting mad?”

“What if your friends stop talking to you?”

“What’s fair game in story telling? When does my story stop being mine?”

“What can I write about my kids? My spouse?”

That’s usually when I got up to leave. I didn’t think I needed to hear this question rehashed and re-answered. I thought I knew the answers. I thought I had figured out this puzzle, solved this riddle. I  had spent many years asking some version of this same question. And though I feel like I’ve wrestled it to the ground over the past several years, somehow it keeps popping up.

All of the writing books and books on creativity that I’ve read in the past few months have addressed The Question: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Writing is My Drink, by Theo Nestor, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Clearly this is a universal problem for writers, and obviously given the plethora of revealing, heartfelt, truth-telling memoirs, many authors have pushed beyond their fears. As Nestor points out in her lovely book, “the writers we really admire and adore are the ones who are willing to take a risk and say what most wouldn’t dare.”

But how do they do manage?

Here’s the basic, most essential bottom line for me: if I don’t write it, I will never have to worry about who reads it. In other words, there is a huge long process to be navigated before anyone will ever read my writing. If I just stay in the place of worry and keep all of my words inside for fear of being judged or misunderstood, I will never be a writer.

The fear of never being a writer trumped my fear of what people might think about me and what I wrote. I managed to set aside my worries about offending people and settled in to write. After all, I started in a memoir writing class where no one knew me—fuck it if they didn’t like what I wrote. I had nothing to lose but my nagging fears of never being a writer.

But they did like what I wrote, and their liking my words, their positive feedback, and their support bolstered my courage. A few of us in the writing group still worried about our parents in particular, but we banded together, encouraged one another, and urged each other to write our truths and worry later when we actually had a publisher about who was going to be offended.

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I have so many fears about speaking and writing my truths—paramount among them was the notion that somehow I would tell my story wrong, that I would put my story down and someone would say to me “nuh uh, that did not happen.” I hardly felt strong enough to write my story, let alone defend it. I had no idea when I started writing my memoir that I would find myself in that position so soon. When I wrote the essay “Body Language” that eventually appeared in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, I thought I was just writing another chapter in the long slog that was my unpublished memoir. So, I was able to tell my truths without worrying too much about who might read them. But then, the piece was accepted into the anthology and publication became a reality.

Two of my fears came to pass, sort of. The piece was picked up by The Friendly Atheist, a blog on patheos.com and reprinted in full. I had steeled myself for my family’s reaction to what I wrote, but I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with the online comments. My mom could accept my truths about my experiences growing up, but she recoiled from the commenters who labeled her as cruel, who said she should be punished.  The saddest result for me was that she felt like she couldn’t come to any of the readings for fear she’d be judged.

The other thing that happened was that my brother, having read my essay, looked at me and said “did we grow up in the same family? I do not remember any of this.” For a moment I assumed he was challenging my version of events, but what I realized after I pondered it (and talked to my therapist about it, of course) was that yes, in fact, we had grown up in different versions of the same family. As the eldest sibling, by four years, as a girl child, I did have a different upbringing than he did. He was 14 when my story took place—there was no reason in the world he would have known about the events. It was, truly, my story to tell.

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The other part of this truth-telling, honesty, being vulnerable on the page thing is something I am still coming to grips with, and that is the creation of a persona. I am not the narrator of my story. The narrator is the narrator. In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro addresses the notion of exposure toward the end, in a section entitled, fittingly, Exposure. She tells the story about a woman who approaches the author Frank McCourt and says to him “I feel like I know everything about you!” to which he responds “Oh darlin’, it’s just a book.”

Shapiro goes on to explain that yes, while we may feel like we are flinging open the doors of our lives to the world, we are actually choosing what to reveal. We are not, she reminds us, writing a diary or stripping naked.  As much as I feel like I leave a good portion of myself on the page, there is so much more that I do not write about. I employ, in the words of my therapist, discernment. Occasionally to make a point I will use hyperbole. I become a character. The people in my life become characters: The Little Woman, The Children, My Therapist. Crazy Neighbor Lady.

Telling a greater truth by manipulating the day to day unfolding of our lives is a tricky concept, one that gets almost as much attention as how can we write our stories without offending anyone. But as Nestor points out (sort of via Vivian Gornick): “The story is the magic that the writer creates out of the events, the brew of insight, metaphor, and voice that renders the events meaningful.”

No writer I know wants to sit on Oprah’s couch and go through what James Frey went through. But there’s a difference between lying (passing off as truth what never actually happened) and rearranging the facts in order to better tell our stories, to better get at the larger truth, the Take Away.

Honesty in story telling is a dance. As writers, I think we seek connection with others through our words, and we can only authentically connect when we make ourselves vulnerable but we can’t just vomit our emotions on to the page. We have to shape, add, subtract, mold. We have to use our imaginations, as Nestor points out, to forge a coherent, universal story out of our personal experiences.

NaBloPoMo

I did a crazy thing the other day. Overwhelmed by inspiration from attending AWP 2014, I signed up with Blogher.com for NaBloPoMo, their monthly blog writing challenge. The idea is to write a blog a day for the entire month. I’m already failing. It’s March 3 and I’ve yet to produce a blog. It’s not like I don’t have any ideas, but I have this fear that when I start a blog, I won’t be able to finish it or wrap it up sufficiently. I am afraid I won’t be able to bring it on home, I guess. This is not an unfamiliar fear. It creeps in often around writing, especially after a dry period.

I have the same fear about running after a few days off. Due to snow and AWP, I’ve not been running for the past five days, and so when I got up this morning the pressure to go for a run was nearly paralyzing. I employed all of my tricks to move past the fear—I got dressed in my running clothes even though I knew I wouldn’t be heading out for a run anytime soon. I reminded myself that I had been feeling exceptionally healthy these past couple of months—a direct result, I am pretty certain, of my increased running activity. I looked at the pants I’ve been wearing recently—pants I couldn’t button before Christmas. That was motivating. Eventually I worked up enough momentum to propel me to lace up my sneakers and hit the road.

Writing is like running I thought as I surveyed the landscape on my run. There were huge branches all over the place, shaken from their trees by recent storms. Writing is like that too, I thought as I gave some trees with suspicious looking branches wide berth. I didn’t need a branch falling on my head. Writing shakes out those loose branches, those fears I encounter before embarking—what if I don’t get very far? What if I make it a mile and then I can’t go on? What if it hurts? But it’s raining. The bottom line is that by beginning, I will be no worse off than I was by not starting and the chances that I will be better off increase each time I put on my running shoes and hit the pavement. Past experience tells me this—it is a fact. I feel better when I run. I feel much better if I run more. I feel shitty if I run less and I feel shittier still if I don’t run at all. I know these things.

I know that if I write, I will feel better. If I write more, I will feel better still, and if I don’t write or write less, I will feel shitty. Furthermore, if I don’t write I will have no material. I cannot reach any of my writing goals without material—I can’t send anything out for publication. I cannot finish my book. I can’t even apply to attend writing retreats (at least the ones I want to attend) if I don’t have anything written down. Starting writing is as scary as putting on my running shoes—facing the blank page or the glowing white computer screen is a lot like taking that first step of a five mile run. What if I get to the end of page one, the end of mile one, and I can’t go any further? What if I run out of things to say?

Here’s what I know:  I’m not any worse off than before I started. In fact, I now have approximately 500 words that I did not have a few moments ago. Just like after running a mile, I am ahead of where I was before I embarked. No worse off, certainly. Most likely better. Because one step leads to more steps just like one word leads to more words and sometimes the miles and the pages fly by and before I know it, I’m bringing it home. I’m cresting that hill, finishing that essay, posting that blog and running the final few steps to my driveway. I know that finishing feels so damn good.