Writing On Your Own Terms Of Endearment (an ode)

A pile of writing. Photo by edifiedlistener.

If you’re a writer, and even if you don’t call yourself that, you know how it happens. One day you hear a voice saying all the things you needed to hear in the just right tone and tempo and you suddenly commit. All further work will be dedicated to emulating this new voice from what appears to be, surely must be, the heavens. You have a model. Now you will find your way because someone else is holding a flashlight over the path you think you’d like to follow. Maybe you’re also like a new puppy: super eager, begging for treats, sniffing and test chewing everything you can find. Everything is interesting and when you sleep, you sleep deeply, curled up on the floor, so content that you have found your purpose.

Maybe that’s going too far. Maybe you’re not a puppy, per se, but a temporary hyper enthusiast. You are so hungry for changing the things you’ve been doing. You crave being done with the things you’ve been doing. But you still can’t stop because then no one would be able to find you. You fear getting lost in the shuffle, becoming unrecognizable. It’s like when your favorite running shoe is discontinued, you mourn the loss. Whatever comes after is never as good as the 33 previous pairs you had. So, to stop doing what you’re doing would mean to discontinue your series. To phase out that long line of production. You really want change, but not into oblivion.

So here comes this voice, this singular voice, that seems to say, “Hey! Relax! Breathe. Write or don’t write. Walk or run. Be who you are. Breathe again. Now try writing.”

The message feels prophetic even if it’s just a talk on a podcast that you listened to on a series of devices. You feel singled out. You feel heard although you never uttered a word. It feels as if this person, this author you had never heard of before, sat right down across from you and said, “Honey, What you’ve been doing is what you’ve been doing and it matters, and it’s worthy and it’s exactly what I mean when I say we should all be writing on our own terms.” That’s what it feels like and so you listen to this voice over and over again telling you, you’ve been on the right path all along. “Most great writers never get published.” And even if that’s not your primary concern (neither being a great writer, nor getting published), it still feels healing to hear it at the right time from the right direction.

You think to yourself about the mountains of writing you will leave in your wake. A never ending coming to terms with being and doing. Writing, writing, writing. The outlet, the release, the correspondence, the container, the magic hat, the timepiece, the storage – all this writing – multipurpose, year-round, all-season habit that finds no end.

What you know about your own writing could fill a book. And here comes this voice that reminds you: we who write are never in the singular. We exist in conversation with each other, in conversation with language, in conversation with conversation even if we can barely stand it to hear that word again because it seems to stand for everything. Yet here we are saying that word to mean that we are talking to each other, we are witnessing and creating exchanges, we are operating in what amounts to the opposite of a vacuum. What’s the word for that? Not every gathering or collection of people, things, voices creates a community. At any rate, we exist in the not-vacuum and together (and apart) we create what we create: messes and havoc, beauty and symphony, struggle and breakthrough, lapses, gaps and gasps. No list is ever exhaustive which is part of what makes them so fun to write. Make a list. Exhaust yourself. That is writing, too.

Of course, you’re thinking too about joy. Why can’t we talk more about joy? We all have more than enough responsibility. So who’s going to advocate for joy? You will and yes, because the voice also does this. The voice talks about making space for sentences to breathe. The voice talks about all of us writing together in a single document and seeing what would emerge, all the mysteries and magic and magnificence that might surprise and scare us at the same time. The ridiculous pile of energy we would produce. It wouldn’t necessarily be all joy, nor all pain, but it would be space – for all of us to be in and breathe.

And sometimes to be in space where you can breathe is all the joy you need for a moment.

Now you’ve written this thing which doesn’t care about what it is so much as it is relieved to have spoken. Finally. To have said the things that have been swirling around and put them down on a page – this is a fantastic relief! You don’t have to know exactly where you go from here. You can go wherever you want, actually. You can write wherever you need to go. That’s the beauty of this thing; this occupation that is not your occupation. You belong to each other. You are your own symbiotic not-vacuum in a world full of other not-vacuums.

Audio version:

Deep gratitude to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for her revelatory talk “Writing On Your Own Terms” via Tin House Live and host, David Naimon.

On summer reading

A summer’s worth of reading

It’s summer and I’m finding more time and space to read. But more than that, I am experiencing my reading as immersive, as feelings-laden. I’m reading for more than pleasure. I’m reading to participate in life from a variety of vantage points while also testing some theories within. I am reading myself back to life. Over and over again. It’s wild.

Perhaps now you’re curious about the what. What is she reading that has got her waxing philosophical? I could offer you a list: title after title with succinct summaries to entice you to do the same. But I’m not feeling that. I recently stumbled upon an insight about writing: mostly I’m writing for my edification, not yours necessarily. I write to scribble myself clear from one end of my thinking to another. Putting words and thoughts on the page are relics of me moving (literally) through my processing. Reading, as I’m experiencing it now, falls along similar lines: I’m reading to take myself someplace else; traveling with varied levels of attending baggage. For fiction where the characters seem farthest removed from my contexts, I carry barely anything. I’m a curious spectator stepping lightly with few sensitivities of possible calamity. In stories closer to what I have known and seen, I can feel my backpack of anxieties bearing down. For whatever I’m reading these days I have a rare openness and vulnerability. I have enough bandwidth.

Meanwhile, I’m undertaking a side project of perusing my journals of the last decades, culling particular insights and events. These are not particularly easy reads. A lot of it feels redundant, whiny, tiresome. Reading my way through these pages I am easily impatient with my minor and major sufferings. It’s no fun being reminded of my naiveté; of difficult feelings in difficult relationships. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable archive of writing energy and stamina. It offers some fairly strong case studies in adult development. For better or worse these hundreds of entries have provided both urgent and not-so-urgent self-sustaining spaces for me to flop, writhe, celebrate and sigh over time. I’m grateful they exist.

#YALit has really boosted my enthusiasm for fiction.

Against this backdrop I’ve been able to dive into others’ books with astounding abandon. Young adult literature has featured strongly: Darius The Great Is Not Okay, When You Were Everything and Sanctuary have all proven very rich in their character development and plot lines. My teen’s middle school summer read, Look Both Ways, was a charming diversion I enjoyed. A friend sent me Theory by Dionne Brand which I devoured in the space of a few days. Pew by Catherine Lacey was nearly as unsettling as Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Of course, I dropped whatever I was doing to read How The Word Is Passed as soon as it arrived in my mailbox. At the beginning of the summer I read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us which prompted me to purchase Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which is up soon. Taken together, these books have consistently brought identity to the fore. While several characters are sorting out their particular responses to “who am I? Who are you? and/or What are we?” in most of these reads “What is society telling me/you/us to be?” turns out to be more pressing in several ways. Negotiating between who we want to be and who else has a say in what we may or may not get to choose about our identities and positions is an ever present struggle.

Which brings me back to my journals. Which brings me back to myself and all the inadequacies that implies. My joy in summer reading is the opportunities I have to wander away from myself, to leave some of my baggage unattended with the knowledge that these excursions also act as stepping stones towards perhaps new and unexpected insights. The point is that I leave and return. I go away and come back. I observe others, I observe myself. In the process I learn, I parse, I reason, I feel. I read, I keep writing.

Several years’ worth of journals.

All photos: © S. Spelic

Unload.

Something I’ve perhaps forgotten about having a personal blog is that it can be fully what I want it to be. I can write what I want and need to write about. I don’t require an outside prompt or a random deadline. This is my space, for my thoughts, at any given time.

This has never been a blog to sell things. Yes, I published a book but that’s not my point. I’m not here so that I can sell you that book. At the same time, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a sense of audience. There are in fact a number of kind, generous folks who not only willingly but even gladly spend time with my words, and also tell me so. That’s a remarkable gift every time it happens. I will never outgrow the thrill of learning that my ideas meant something to someone else.

And yet this blog feels like it has become an addendum, a side bar to my other social/intellectual/educational activities. I now put out a monthly newsletter designed to inform and inspire. I still have a publication that holds an impressive archive of writing from educator authors I admire and hold dear. I tweet a lot. I’ve done more presentations in the last 3 months than over the last 2 years.

I wonder about this particular form of what has become pandemic productivity. In this particular year where I have spent so much more time at home, in front of a screen, in correspondence with my students and almost everybody else, I feel like a kind of productivity has arisen that has a lot to do with reassurance in the midst of uncertainty. We write to indicate that we’re still here, still in the world, still at it, still fighting the good fight. We write to let our people know but perhaps even more to let ourselves know – something still works, some things can still be managed, some things are still possible.

I was in a conversation recently where a person spoke of a tension in the shoulders and neck that eased up a few days after the US presidential election. It’s only when we exhale and feel the rush of air escape our mouths that it becomes apparent we were holding our breath the whole time.

I’ve missed writing about feelings more than ideas. It’s a relief to step away from a false need to assert and substantiate every little statement. I am not a study. My emotional dips and crests are not the topic of extensive research. And yet I am a whole person; complicated, thinking, acting, venturing.

Sometimes I ask: what good is writing? when the world keeps asking: which writing is good? My courage these days lies in responding: IDC and that’s not the point.

That is not the point, that is not the point, that is not the point.

What good is writing?

That it is.

Boxes of Thought

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Photo by furkanvari on Unsplash

Reading is so often about searching, whether we realize it or not. An excitement, a secret revealed, a worry, a fulfillment – we don’t always know what it is we’ll get, but when it comes, we know it and recognize it as ours. This is for me. We feel seen, realize we’re not the only ones. Sometimes it’s a comfort. But horror is also a possibility, I suppose.

To read is to be on the lookout. To have your eyes peeled. Reading lets us pretend that we’re ready. At least that. The truth of our inner state is not the point. Words on page after page that mysteriously hold us – in suspense, in awe, in shock. Reading is a magic trick we keep learning and relearning. The same trick that keeps changing and changing every time we perform it. I do it but I don’t always understand exactly how.

To write feels less like a trick, more like a bodily function, sometimes voluntary but not always.

I regret that this format is so boxy. My blog posts show you boxes of thought (paragraphs), neatly stacked which is a very poor and inaccurate semblance of what I would rather express. What I would rather show you today is the chaos of my thinking, the conundrum of too many threads which resist being woven alongside each other.

The platform itself wants to steer me towards greater boxiness with its “block editor” which I continue to reject as long as I can. I want less standardization, not more. And yet, I keep writing here, where whatever I type begins Black against white but once published, lands Black against cornflower blue – a design choice of questionable merit. The typeface is always Black like me, though.

I will now plunge this post into the chaos I intended.

  • Never have I felt a need for a king. But now that the greatest of fictions has left us, I mourn. Wakanda forever.

 

  • Identity has become my latest soapbox, the one folks ask me to speak from of late. I have mixed feelings about this.

 

  • Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how well our school reopening is going so far.

 

  • In a conversation about the link between acknowledging the multiple aspects of one’s own identity and seeing the need for anti-racist action, for a brief shining moment it felt like I had an answer that made sense.

 

  • I hope that folks do not make me out to be wiser than I am. I try to remind myself that I am more parts ignorance than knowledge. I keep reading. I listen.

 

Reading can be such a delightfully private affair, especially offline. No one is tracking my tastes, habits or timing while I read a bound book. I wonder how relevant this will be in the long run.

I am grateful for a lifestyle which affords an incredible access to the printed word in myriad formats. This is my parents’ most enduring legacy. They raised me a reader.

Here’s what I’m reading right now: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero, Überseezungen by Yoko Tawanda, and How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow.

My thoughts are scattered, fragmented. I am used to this state. My young students call me back to attention in a heartbeat. I need them to keep me upright and on task. While I’m away from them I read and write with abandon. It’s a form of balance; the very nature of my both/and.

Weekends are for remembering. I forget so much as I go. I fall apart as the week goes on. I pull myself back together  – re – member – in these few days of rest.*

Yesterday I had no words but lots of feelings. Today I have the morning and an almost clear conscience.

I wish I could make this post into an assortment of baskets for you to rummage through at your leisure. Instead, I and wordpress give you these boxes of thought. Packaged, contained, labeled.

Even our freedoms are full of constraints.

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Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

*The idea of re-membering was introduced to me by Gregg Levoy in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.

 

 

Once it’s done

Once this book is done…

Once this conference is over…

Once this school year is past…

Once I get over this illness…

Once that bill becomes a law…

Once that child is out of diapers…

Once we’re done paying tuition…

Once my loans are paid off…

Once I get my paycheck…

Once he realizes that I’m gone for good…

Once she sees that his talk is really cheap…

Once we know who the winner is…

Once we find out how much more it will cost…

Once they discover the extent of the damage…

Once we hear our own hearts grow faint…

Once we notice how wrong we were…

Once we come to our senses…

Once we decide to make the change…

It will all be more different than we ever imagined.

Only

Once.

*Shout out to everyone who accomplished something they set out to do. I see you and celebrate you. We did it!

Also, the book is really done. You can order it here if you’re so inclined.

Yes, and

2019 arrived and I didn’t much care. On New Year’s Eve my stomach hurt. I cut out at 11:30pm with no regrets.

We’re on the tail end of a family vacation which has gone remarkably smoothly. Everybody has gotten to do most of the things they wanted to do: speedskate, ski, run, play video and/or board games, sleep in, stay up late, read a lot, watch TV, go for a walk, eat out, eat in, eat chips, drink beer, drink wine, not drink at all, leave a mess, clean it up, snack, snack, snack, and write.

Released from a lot of my regular duties, I experience a bunch of emotions that I’m not all the way prepared for. I find some leftover guilt in my pockets, a curtain of despair in the wind that stalls me on the lake, a crusty strip of resentment I almost trip over while strolling on a wooded path. I take comfort in reading about other people’s sorrows. I’m able to read with a bit more empathy than usual perhaps.

My capacity for easy conversation strikes me as limited. I can say some things that seem to fit and then I hit a wall. I listen and nod but let others carry on from there. At some point I may check out, gently excuse myself to another corner of the room. It’s the holidays so it feels like even that’s okay.

Internally, however, my word machine keeps blowing at full speed. My head swells with waves of words. Sentences on the page before me spawn another set of thoughts that require their own peculiar expression. To an outsider it looks like I’m maybe spaced out or deep in thought. I don’t know. I’ve never asked anyone. It occurs to me that once I’m gone, I will have left a trail of words behind me.

I check into my social media saloon and it feels like a ‘Cheers’ re-run – that place “where everybody knows your name.” Which is of course not true at all, but there are plenty of people I find and can huddle up with. This, too, is a surprising comfort. I stumble into some conversations and get caught up in the richness of the exchange. I feel part of community. I have some things to say and discover much I want to listen to – I do not hit a conversational wall. Word squalls form in my head and the relief is great when I can release some of them into a little blue box of 280 characters or less.

I’m learning to make peace with exercising early and staying inside for a greater part of the day. I am no longer the endurance addict that I once was. I’m still getting over that fact. Part of maintaining a vacation tradition involves noticing changes over time: the steadiness I feel on my skates after a decade of tentative practice, the way my outdoor equipment fits, the way my eyes never tire of the lake + mountain view when I cross the bridge. Yes, and it’s no secret that I am getting older.

Adult development can be a bit of conundrum. We gain experience as we age and may learn from our successes and mistakes but that’s not a given. Wisdom is not free or guaranteed. In middle age I may be enjoying the height of my financial resources and benefit from all sorts of amassed social capital. Yes, and I struggle with keeping myself upright and on task.

Writing assignments I have placed on my docket both intrigue and daunt me. I have reservations about what and how much I can actually achieve. I keep writing nevertheless. Spending time in this somewhat vulnerable and questioning space, feels oddly helpful, neither pressure raising nor reducing. There is fresh air in abundance. Yes, and I am breathing.

2019 one breath at a time.

image © edifiedlistener

 

The Problem That Is/Isn’t

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“The problem,” she said, “is not that I read too much. It’s that I feel too much of what I read.”

“The problem,” he said, “is not that I watch too much, It’s that I have seen more than I know how to handle. And I cannot turn away.”

“you know what your problem is?”

“My problem? My problem is that I am empty and full at the same time.”

My responsibilities are not my regrets, but they do cost me some energy. I take these responsibilities. I have chosen these responsibilities. They give me purpose and keep me going but they are not weightless. They don’t defy gravity. I get tired. I run out of steam. And my stuff still gets done. That’s the deal. That’s how this works. You know that.

I put words on the screen. Not even on the real page. So that I’m writing without really writing. Just putting stuff down. And then someone will come along and say, hey, I get it. I hear you. That’s the shit! And I will feel humble and arrogant at the same time because nothing is just one thing anymore. It’s always more than one thing. Multidimensional both/and, never ever just tidy and set. And it tires me out. And here I come again, scrolling right through to the next set of problems I want to think about but don’t have time because you know, I need to hang up the laundry and clear the dishwasher and thank God, the cookies are already baked and packaged for tomorrow.

Then someone asks, “Hey Sherri, can you…?” And I say “sure, not a problem.”

Because what is and what isn’t a problem can shift.

“My problem,” I said, “is, in fact, nothing more and nothing less than me just trying to live a life that makes sense some or even most of the time. I’m a beginner and a veteran at once. I’m gifted and I suck. I need more sleep but I keep staying up late. I’m a mess and a marvel.”

“Hey,” they said, “what you need is a vacation!”

And I said, “you know what? You are right.”

 

Stuck.

As in failing to move forward. Failing to make visible progress.

Stuck. As if plastered to the spot.

Willing and unable to pull the lever, unlock the lock, or do whatever that thing is you do to start something rolling.

Scrolling through social media, clicking and stabbing at so much emptiness. Pausing occasionally to say please and thank you and hmph.

Stuck.

Release. My release when it comes

will be sudden and unexpected as if it had been there the whole time and saying, “what do you mean you were stuck?”

“That’s ludicrous.”

This is no way to approach writing a substantive piece of work that people should read and congratulate me on.

No way at all. Stuck.

Creativity on hold. Backed up communication channels. System blockage.

Remembering: No one is waiting up late for this.

There is no stop watch running.

Tomorrow is another day.

I’m stuck.

And I am.

 

Writing My Way Out of a Paper Bag

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I can write my way out of a paper bag.

There, I said it.

“I am large, I contain multitudes” wrote Walt Whitman.

“Me too,” I replied.

I’m trying to pull a book together. I won’t say write a book because not all of it will be from scratch. The goal is to compile, gather, thread and punctuate several pieces of writing with new connective works. On some days I am fully convinced that this is a great idea. On other days, I end up shaking my head and walking away. And here’s where it gets interesting.

When I walk away (or even run away), what do I do?

I go hustle for approval. That’s right, hustle for approval.

I do this at home, at work, in the car, on my phone, in every imaginable context. I make the play again and again, always hot on the heels of some kind of affirmation goodness. Like this:

I run the dishwasher before my partner gets home.

I pull the secret sweets out of my backpack and hand them to my grumpy 10 y-o late in the afternoon when I still have to go grocery shopping.

My students ask, “Is it Awesome Gym Day?” and I think for a moment before saying “Yes, but you’ll have to set it up.”

I return my library books on time and take out two new books. The librarian smiles at me.

I get on Twitter and start scrolling and read two or three blog posts. I quote retweet with a passage from the piece so folks know that I actually read it.

I sweep the bathroom floor after combing my hair because, you know, all those brittle ends go flying all over.

Of course I braid my big puffy hair so that it lays graceful and flat against the side of my head and provides little cause for comment.

I put plenty of cream on my face so my skin looks smooth, even the bags under my eyes.

When I’m talking to others I try to focus on listening even if I’m not all the way in the mood.

I stand at the far corner of the track so that my athletes struggling through the last 150m of a 400 can hear me cheer them on.

So I far I’ve kept my body in about the same size category for about 40 years. People see me and say “you haven’t changed in years.” The effort required is an ongoing accomplishment and never ending challenge at the same time. The hustle is real.

At the end of the school day, I pack up my equipment and drag it back into storage and try to make sure it goes back into the right spaces. My colleagues trust me not to leave a mess.

At home I maintain a particular level of messiness but I can still find things pretty easily. It’s a skill. I may straighten my space up if we have company. (Rare)

I don’t write on a schedule. But someone somewhere always reads what I post and I can’t really quite get over the miracle of how that all takes place.

When I meet parents I usually know their child and have something good to say about him, her or them.

I read to my youngest before he goes to bed. Both of us love this ritual. There’s a special mutuality to this hustle.

Lots of people I know have a hard time imagining me angry. They have simply never seen me that way.

So these are some of my every day hustles. Writing this post certainly falls in that category, too. Hustling for approval is what I do. I want to be seen, liked, appreciated, and loved.

When I am not working on this larger piece of work that is begging for its own future, this is how I am spending my minutes, hours, days. No mask, just the real deal.

I contain multitudes as much as Walt Whitman and I can write my way out of a paper bag while I run around gathering approval points anywhere I can. Truth.

 

  • I am borrowing the term “Hustle for approval” from Brene Brown who uses “hustle for worthiness” in her work.

 

*Cough, cough* Is this mic on?

Once upon a time, I was a runner. I rose each morning filled with thoughts of what my workout commitment was and how everything else fit around that. Work, child care, housekeeping and all the rest were all set up to insure that my running time was secured. I was focused on achievement and I experienced, for my standards, reasonable success. When it came time to shed this blanket identity, I struggled to find a replacement. When I could no longer call myself a runner, I felt somewhat adrift. For a while I became a seeker without a title.

I discovered new interests. I invested in education, became a frequent-flyer at personality seminars and coaching workshops. Within a few years, I arrived a new identity: coach.

*Reached this point in the post, looking for a possible exit*

*Blah, blah, blah, coaching… passionate…blah, blah…*

Part of me hates telling these kinds of stories: I did this, learned that and became this. Introduction, build-up, (there’s rarely a climax), and resolution. The stories make a circuitous path seem like a neat and straight trajectory. Such stories are so incomplete and flattened that they undermine whatever truth remains in them.

*Decides to continue with flawed narrative format anyway.*

The reason I started all this was actually to make sense of where I am now: conflicted, overwhelmed, strung out on identity finding, making, affirming, doing. Without question this inner dialogue turned outward, made public for consumption by strangers, friends and loved ones has a lot to do with it. Since I have chosen a path in social media, in the blogosphere, that has consequences; benefits and costs which I continually weigh.

Sorting myself, my thoughts, my identities in public is a choice that is fraught, fraught, fraught. Knowing that feels like a win, though. So cognizant of this tension between being and performing, telling and dramatizing; seeking and shunning attention at the same time, I’m writing to say, I am tired and I’m still here.

Because while I arrived here (online) as an educator, coach and former runner, what I’ve become is a writer who sometimes struggles to live up to the all the other pieces of me that ultimately are on display. I go to sleep thinking about the read and unread, the writing completed and the writing ahead. I wake up with new ideas and old ones. I walk through my day immersed in composition of one kind or another, forming images that beg to be recorded but for which there are not enough hours in the day. My day is awash in words I want to use and bend to my will.

For now I have stopped denying myself the mantle of writer. Perhaps that will offer some relief. My privilege in this respect stretches far. I can do and be many things at once and few will contest my claims.

(Many, many thanks to @hypervisible for introducing me to my new favorite GIF which I plan to use as often as possible, even incorrectly.)