So, the other day I thought I was doing a brave thing by referring to myself as a good writer. Ever since I've been troubled by regret and self-doubt.
I wanted to claim that for myself because, among other things, if I can cultivate a decent level of self-confidence as a writer, I won't need as much external affirmation. The same goes for a decent level of self-confidence in general; it's when we're plagued by insecurity that we get needy.
Part of what I was trying to say is that I haven't yet written my best work. And that's a good thing, but it's also an incredibly daunting thing, especially for a writer who has a tendency to believe that whatever it is I'm working on cannot, in fact, be done. That the work is too much for me, that I will start a sentence that I'm not wise or talented enough to finish, and that will be it.
I thought that I could avoid that dreadful feeling with a thimbleful of swagger by claiming, at the beginning of a week of writing, that I'm a good writer. I couldn't.
I didn't do what I came to do this week. I can't pretend otherwise. I wrote a ton. I wrote pieces that were under deadline. But I barely touched my book project, which is not under contract and therefore does not (yet?) have a deadline. I don't regret the work I did, but I do regret the work I didn't do. In part because now it's all ahead of me, thousands of words that I haven't yet strung together. And I might not be writer enough to write them.
July 12, 2014
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
- Tina Fey, "Rules of Improvisation"Last night my lovely little Collegeville cohort had an unusual after-dinner treat: an improv workshop with an energetic and experienced improv coach.
It was horrible. No, that's not right. It was brilliant and insightful and loads of fun.
I was horrible.
We did a series of increasingly-complicated exercises designed to free us up and turn us into improvisational dynamos - or something like that. At first I'd know when my moment was coming, as we went around the circle taking turns. But part of the added complexity was not knowing when your turn was coming. You could be called on at any time and just have to run with it, whatever "it" was.
And my mind would go blank. When I knew when my turn was coming, my anxiety would advance like storm clouds on the horizon. When I didn't know when my turn was coming, I felt a sort of swirly panic.
One of the foundational rules of improv is to say "yes, and..." The first part was hard for me; you have to be quick enough to affirm whatever random thing is thrown at you. But the second part - being able to add something to the scene - gah. I couldn't do it. I'd stand there with my jaw dropped, totally paralyzed and distinctly aware that all eyes were on me.
I'm not a shy person. Nor am I an introvert (the improv coach teased us all about being introverted writers, but that isn't exactly the case for me). But there have been a handful of times in my life that I've been seized by social anxiety. The most pointed and painful was my first year of college, when I attended Bowling Green State University. The feeling of inexplicable panic and paralysis I felt last night is pretty much how I felt during the entirety of my time at BG.
It makes sense. The "script" of my life - the people and places that I'd known for eighteen years - was back home in Stow. In theory I liked the opportunity to reinvent myself, but in reality it was too much. In reality, my mind went blank. In reality, when I did muster the courage to speak, my own voice sounded foreign.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana has written a lot about improv, and, may I add, was really good at it last night. She claims it doesn't come easily to her: "My life’s constant spiritual challenge is to love what is rather than clinging to that flawless thing I’ve meticulously planned. It’s why I’m drawn to improv, which requires responsiveness and flexibility."
I so appreciate this willingness to go deeper into the challenge, to intentionally practice responsiveness and flexibility. My instinct is to run as fast as I can in the other direction from the need to improvise, in life and art.
The odd thing is that while I have some control issues (no need to pipe up with any vigorous affirmations, dear husband), I'm cool with going with the flow on most days. I do suffer with anxiety about the unknown, no doubt. But as I think about this improv stuff as it relates to my creative life - which was what we were implicitly tasked to do - I think about how much I cling to my sermon manuscripts, and how stubbornly I refuse to do crafts, and how freaking long it can take me to write one single sentence.
I don't like to fail. And I don't like to feel dumb. And while I don't mind speaking in front of groups - indeed, I rather love it - I will know every. single. thing. that I plan to say. I can facilitate a conversation pretty easily, but I reckon that has something to do with the fact that as facilitator, I have a particular role in the conversation, and that, in an of itself, is a form of "script."
One of the funny bonuses of being a pastor for me is the role it affords me. I don't have to be a person at large, scriptless and panicked when it's my turn to talk. In my small town, I'm not known by everyone by a long shot, but all I have to do is say, "I'm one of the pastors at First Congo..." and I'm safe. Or rather I feel safe.
Last night as we wrapped up the workshop, I turned to the teacher and told her about how my mind had gone blank. She laughed and quipped that if she were a therapist we would talk about why that might be. I didn't really have a "yes, and" for that comment either, so I thanked her and excused myself from the evening fellowship gathering for a night of isolated recovery in my room. Maybe I'm a bit of an introvert after all.
July 9, 2014
The first time I read Micha Boyett’s Found, I didn’t know that I would be reviewing it. Which is to say I didn’t read the book with an eye for what potential readers might find in its pages, and I didn’t jot down critical notes in the margins. I read it for what I found in its pages. My marginalia were for myself, and my impressions were not yet bound to the obligations of a reviewer.
Perhaps, at least sometimes, it is acceptable to slip an uncritical reaction into a proper analysis of a book. This is mine: the morning after I stayed up too late finishing the last chapter, I called a local spiritual director to book my first appointment. For years I have resisted the whole enterprise, and this one imperfect yet powerful memoir nudged me to stop accepting the lukewarm state of my spiritual life. During my first session with Bridget I explained my mystifying impetus: I wanted to yearn for God as deeply as Micha Boyett does. For Micha Boyett longs for God with a disarming earnestness.
|Photo by Lee Hull Moses. Used without permission, but we will hope that she forgives me since we're such good friends.|
I am presently tucked away in one of my very favorite places, the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota. I'm so grateful to be here. I'm also grateful that I have a lot of writing to do this week. I have a Big Thing in the works, as well as a handful of writing deadlines in the weeks and months ahead. I keep trying to limit how much I take on, but it seems that every time I swear off any more writing gigs, the universe presents another one that I cannot pass up.
The time I spent here in 2009 was pivotal. I met some wonderful people, including two of my dearest friends. I found my misplaced sense of pastoral calling. And I reaffirmed the same thing I've been saying since I was a kid: I want to be a writer.
I am a writer. And, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm a good writer. The universe - or, more precisely, editors - would not keep inviting me to contribute posts and essays and chapters if my sentences weren't worth reading. I'm so astonished by and pleased with the way my writing vocation is unfolding.
Being here, I can't help but think about my book. I only wrote a few chapters here, in 2009 and when I returned in 2010, but the book probably wouldn't have happened at all if I hadn't come to Collegeville.
I'm a better writer than I was a few years ago - which is to say that I'm a better writer than I was when I wrote Any Day a Beautiful Change. That makes me a little nervous; so often I look back at things I've done in the past and think they are terribly sophomoric. But I still rather like that book. I want to keep liking it even as it sort of thrills me to realize that the Big Thing (hint, hint: it's a book) could potentially be far better.
Now it's time to get to all that writing. Those sentences don't write themselves, which is sort of a shame as I still much prefer having written to writing.