On Being Gangster

“I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days. It’s such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. So be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

It seems like life this week is all about me being busted. Yesterday it was The Cherubs & my lack of grammar knowledge. This morning it’s the 101 ways I’ve forgotten to be (in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert) gangster.

It’s not so much a fear of not being taken seriously as an artist that gets me, because I’ve never  felt like an artist to begin with. I’m too…straightforward, perhaps. I file my taxes and show up places on time, and I have (in the words of Hermione Granger) the emotional range of a teaspoon. So the title “artist” has never fit.

But two other fears police my gangsterness, wrecking my ability to enjoy work: Fear of not being taken seriously as an author, and fear of not making life with Jesus look as…well, gangster as it is. Those run deep. They’ve grown an extravagant root system down into my psyche, keeping me numb & paralyzed.

The author fear insists that I have to at least pretend to be slaving away at some work in progress at all times. Even if it’s not going well. Even if I hate every word I write, even if my paragraphs don’t make sense. (Not in an overly self-critical way, but in an honest, “Wow, this is absolute nonsense” way that we artists like to pretend isn’t possible but totally is.)  This fear insists that if I don’t finish my long-suffering novel, or my stagnant book on praying for a husband, EVERYONE WILL HATE ME, AND I WILL HAVE FAILED AT LIFE. (Really, it says this. As if anyone will even care, let alone work up the energy to be pissed off about it.) And because I believe this fear time and time again, about once every other week I dutifully open those pitiful documents, toss in a few more words, then I give up and close my laptop, feeling like even more of a failure.

It’s awesome.

The fear of not being a good Public Christian is more insidious, because it has me coming and going. It suggests that I must produce multitudinous amounts of prose on living the excellent,  abundant (sometimes excruciating, but let’s not dwell too long on that whole “death before new life” thing) Jesus-ey existence, while distancing myself from the entirety of American Christian Culture and the multitudinous amounts of prose it produces that make people want to gag. The Bible says to “be in them not of them,” and too often for me this means striving to be among Christians (I mean, they’re my people) but really not at all like them. Nope. Way cooler, more laid back, not one little bit judgmental or frustrating, not wearing homemade dresses. (At least this last part is easy.)

All of this inner turmoil has been my normal for so long now, I can’t remember ever not feeling this way.

Then this weekend, Elizabeth Gilbert skipped through my world with her new book. I picked it up because I like her writing (I mean, she held my attention through a 600 page novel about a  COLLECTING MOSS. If that’s not talent, I don’t know what is). Most writing/creativity books say the same things – work every day, don’t judge your early drafts, persevere. I didn’t expect much new substance, just a pleasant delivery.

I was surprised.

First, let me say that her spiritual perspective is flat-out BANANAGRAMS. She believes that ideas are sentient beings waiting to be embodied, and that they fly around between us, searching for a home. (In my faith we call those things demons, but whatever.) I skimmed those pages.

What blew me out of the water was her her insistence that writing is fun. It’s this awesome thing we GET to do, and so we should do it all the time, with great delight. There should be GLEE. She insists that it’s totally worth it to sacrifice our serious reputations to regain some joy in putting words on the page and creating new worlds. We should write all sorts of silly things: novels and songs and blog posts and essays – whatever floats our boat. Find some other way to pay the bills, she says. I felt like a 10,000 lb. weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was invited back into the life I lived before I became a Professional Christian Author (and stopped writing books because of the ridiculousness of trying to wrestle myself into such an ill-fitting garment.)

Throughout BIG MAGIC, I kept thinking, Here is a woman who spent YEARS with an imaginary character whose primary passion was collecting moss, just because it was fun. What must it feel like to feel that excited about a project everyone else thinks is insane? (Because I’ll admit, when the advance press about that novel came out, I was sure she’d gone well and truly round the bend.)

But the truth is, I know what that’s like. It’s how I wrote my first book.  And now, all these years later, Elizabeth Gilbert has challenged me to find that gangster place again.

What Motivates You: Calling or Ego?

ego2-drhannanI found this gem of an article in the March 2014 issue of Inc. Magazine.  I wish it were an entire book – there’s much to consider here. But narrowing it down to three basic distinctions isn’t a bad place to start. I’m taking some of this verbatim from columnist Shelley Prevost – these are her ideas, not mine. I’m just putting them in question form because I think they’re handy, especially for artistic types as we consider new projects.

If you’re trying to decipher what’s driving you – ego or calling – consider these three questions:

1. Are you burnt out? 

Ego leads to burnout, calling leads to fulfillment. When you feel deep satisfaction when you’re in the muddle with a project that may or may not lead to anything, and long to keep going…that’s a sign of calling.

2. Is your main focus the finish line?

Ego focuses on the result, whereas calling focuses on the process. Prevost points out that when we feel like all our work is pointless unless or until we get the result we were shooting for–publish the book, finish the race, thwart the evil villian once and for all (oops, that’s my superhero side slipping out!) — we’re at the mercy of our egos.  “A calling, however, can handle the stress of ambiguity.” (Isn’t that a nice way to put it?)

3. Are you thinking about the impact this project will have on you, or on others? 

This is a tricky one, because most writers write for other people…and the way we imagine it will feel to have them read our book. See how circular that can be? But I think the question comes to this: am I writing to have written another book, or can I see in my mind’s eye an individual reader who will be entertained/inspired because I wrote another book?

Interesting questions, right?

My thoughts: Having an ego gets a bad rap (especially in faith circles). The temptation is to pretend that we’re above all this, that our motives pure and altruistic. What crap. NOBODY has more ego that someone who writes or speaks or sings or performs for a living. It takes ego to carry the audacious idea that not only do we have something to say…but other people should stop what they’re doing and listen.

Ego isn’t bad. It’s just that those little seeds of narcissism need careful tending, lest they grow all up through our creative Unknownprocess and ruin everything. The ego says, “I have something to say!” whereas calling helps you slow down enough to figure out what that something is, and how to say it well.

I’ve written from both of these places. Obviously, the stuff I wrote when I was fulfilled, enjoying the process, and thinking of readers is far better than what I’ve come up with in the throes of “I have to get another book written or I’m a failure!” angst. The first-catagory pages are the ones I come back to again and again, adding and editing, tinkering and moving things around, waiting to see what new thoughts and shapes emerge. I’m grateful for this reminder that this isn’t just a waste of time when I SHOULD REALLY BE WRITING!

This IS writing.

Bonus: Digging around, I found this longer article by Prevost expanding on this topic. Enjoy :)

Overcoming Narcissism to Get the Job Done

(Note on the genesis of this post: I was working on a guest blog for another site about going after goals that feel out of reach. The post below seemed like a bit much to unleash on an unknown audience, but I want to remember thinking about this, and I don’t think I’m the only one fighting this battle. So I’m posting here instead.)

A few years ago the church I was part of went through an ugly implosion. A series of tragedies – financial betrayal by one leader, the death of another – undid us, revealing that while as a group of young-ish (here in Cambridge where I live, 30-something is still young-ish) people bolstered by enthusiastic faith, we had incredible ability to do good for our city and the people we loved, we had almost no capacity to deal with catastrophe when big waves hit our boat.

UnknownI think part of the problem was that so many of us were narcissists. Not everyone would qualify as a narcissism poster child the way Steve Jobs has (he’s been dissected endlessly for this quality since his death).  It’s more that many of us have strong hints of several of the characteristics that make narcissism both a powerful leadership motivator and a slippery slope towards disaster if one doesn’t keep very precise footing.  When I first learned about narcissism via an article a friend sent me in regard to a pastor at different church who was chewing up his congregation (this happens a lot in churches), I thought, “Wow, that describes him to a T…it also describes my pastor, me, and a lot of our friends.”  Any of us who have the audacity to believe we have something important to say and that others should listen? We have the building blocks of narcissism somewhere in our foundation.

Thinking and praying about this, I realized: having these tendencies isn’t the problem. If you look at the Bible, it’s clear from the first few chapters that we’re all born with some disastrous tendency or another. Some of us get an assortment.  A life well lived isn’t about being above these human foibles, it’s having a plan to manage them.

This is why I’ve stuck with Christianity, even as the church I loved fell apart. It’s still the best disaster management plan I’ve found, and I’ve put lots of them to the test. Diligently applied, Jesus offers us a place to trade in our evil inclinations. We can confess, ask forgiveness, repent, and receive God’s grace. Which isn’t just about not feeling guilty. It’s about having a miraculous capacity not to be our worst selves, even in moments of stress or weakness.  We can be better than our own ability or capacity – better friends, colleagues, spouses, parents, family members, citizens, and neighbors. And when we blow it, we can go ask for his help, and do better next time. Whatever we are, Jesus can help us be better. But we have to do the stuff. Diligently. And that takes time away from the siren call of pursuing our great big dreams and taking over the world. It’s a bit of a conflict, truth be told.

When narcissism whispers to me that what I become in life is entirely determined by what I rush out and grab, the offer of another way holds a quiet appeal.  But I have to opt in, and silence the voice that says I’ll fail if I don’t charm and bully the world into doing things my way.  But when tragedy hits, quiet answers don’t seem up to the job.

Unknown-1The problem with narcissism is that it promises more than it delivers. It terms of tools, it’s a box filled with hammers, with nary a scalpel to be found. There’s the charm hammer, the manipulation hammer, and the bullying sledgehammer that gets pulled out when the first two fail. But it’s never, ever a scalpel, because there’s just too much emotion attached to every action and reaction to work with that kind of precision.

I want to work with precision. I haven’t always, but it’s the goal I’m shooting for these days in my writing and speaking…and in the more private sphere of life as I consider how to be a wife, family member, and friend. It takes a degree of calm to hone in on what God is saying, to see the connections He’s pointing out and then figure out how to put those things into words and action.  When you’ve built momentum, it’s a bit of a process to slow down and change direction.

This is a gift. It is a way to construct a life that feels solid, even though the building process often runs behind schedule and over budget. As my friend Jon from law school used to say (and he was the calmest guy I’ve ever known), “Things tend to get done.”

This is my approach to working toward dreams these days.

Would you lie to be happier?

First, THANK YOU for the support & encouragement last week on the new edition of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not! You guys are awesome, and your words, help & friendship mean more to me than you know.  Thank you!!!

Second, a serious (but interesting) question: Would you lie to be happier? Before you answer, let me tell you what’s prompting this question:

I’m finishing up a book I’ve really enjoyed.  It’s about positive psychology – the idea that rather than psychology being entirely about studying & treating what’s wrong or addressing the things that  make us sad in life, there are benefits to focusing on what is going well.  The overarching idea is that developing a tendency to look on the bright side actually re-wires our brains to notice good things and see difficulties as surmountable challenges, rather than the end of the world.  In short, positive psychology is an attempt to connect the dots between “Don’t Worry” & “Be Happy.”  I appreciate the effort :)

I’ve read a bunch of similar books – they pop up with some regularity on the shelf at my library and the pretty orange/red/yellow covers are fun to bring home and have around for awhile (I know some folks use house plants for this, but I’ve yet to overwater a book…)   This book doesn’t provide much I haven’t read before, but it’s organized in a way that makes the information memorable, and helps me synthesize it and think about how it relates to other things. About halfway through, I decided that the next time I was in a bookstore I’d buy my own copy so I could underline, highlight & scribble notes in the margins (that makes me happy!)

41dIlPt7p7L_SS500_-435x435_smaller Unknown Unknown-2  deadplant_o

Then I went online to learn more about the author. And I discovered that he may have fibbed/exaggerated/lied (pick the verb you like) about several of his credentials.  He mentions Harvard about every third sentence in the book, but that’s standard around here. If you’ve got the Crimson connection, why not flaunt it? I’m okay with that. It was interesting reading his descriptions of his research there, his time on campus as a student and dorm overseer, lectures he’s given in “Harvard’s most popular class,” students he worked with.  The very strong implication was that he worked as a professor teaching & conducting positive psychology research. But that’s not true. He was an undergrad, and then a student at the Divinity School. He was a TA for the professor who taught the popular class. And his research for this book was mainly (from what I can tell) hanging out with students in dorms, observing & talking to them. Which is fine–I didn’t grab the book for his research cred, and it doesn’t change any of his points. But I feel misled.  Which is a bummer, because something that made me happy now makes me feel vaguely uneasy.

On a larger scale, it has me asking: Is it worth it to take this risk to reach a professional goal?

Let’s be clear: He didn’t fabricate flat-out falsehoods (how’s THAT for accidental alliteration?) I mean, the guy was at Harvard, he no doubt spoke to students. And he probably even gave talks in the class he TA’d and in the dorm he oversaw. But the gap between that and what a reader imagines from his word choices and descriptions is pretty broad. It’s a risky choice. But it got him a publishing deal and a Ted Talk. So it paid off.  If happiness is the currency here, this choice  to mislead or exaggerate brought him lots of happiness, and only cost me (and other readers) a little.

(In a fascinating detail, his degree from Harvard Divinity School is in Buddhist and Christian Ethics)

Would you fib/exaggerate/lie if it would bring you LOTS more happiness at little cost to others?

 

Busted, but Happier

UnknownA friend and I went to a Meet-up last night for a start-up company called Happier. It was way more fun than we expected.  Admittedly, our expectations were low, as the last networking event we went to turned out to be a thinly veiled recruitment party for a religion.  So all Happier had to do to please us was just be something close to what they said they were and not pull any blatantly manipulative stunts. We weren’t hard to please.

The Happier folks hit it out of the park.

First of all, there was orange. Lots of it. For those of you who remember my quest for an orange purse last summer (still haven’t found quite the right one, but the dream lives on!) you can imagine my glee walking into a room where bright orange is used with crazy imagination (WHY didn’t I take a picture of the wall mural made of paint sample stripes???).

photo

Happier founder Nataly Kogan, along with “Robot Parker” who rolled around the office greeting people.

I also appreciated how not-cheesy the Happier team was about what they’re doing. They weren’t forced-happy automatons (even the guy who was there as a robot, via a iPad strapped to a Sequeway – which was pretty cool); they weren’t circling the room pelting us with fairy dust. Instead, they talked about the development of an emotion-driven business, and how the Happier community is a place to share all sorts of thoughts with candor we don’t often find on Facebook (which has sort of become, “Look at me! And my fabulous life! Things are just great!” like the social media version of the dreaded Christmas letter).  Happier isn’t about bragging about how happy you are. It’s about reaching to be a bit happier, and noticing what gets the job done.  As Nataly, one of the founders, told me, “You don’t have to be happy to become happier.” 

I LOVE this idea. It’s so true. She showed me a post she’d done that morning where she admitted to feeling fried & blah, and how an english muffin made her a bit happier. I can relate to the incremental uptick in joy found in bread-y carbohydrates.

You have to climb 5 flights of stairs to get to the Happier office, so they’ve lined the landings with encouraging signs to make you laugh along the way (“Climbing releases endorphins, which means this is making you happier!”) I appreciate the way they combine seriousness about their vision and business, while fully embracing the humor that goes with the pursuit of happiness.

I should also admit (in case it makes one of you happier) that I got BUSTED last night on being beyond horrible at networking. I’ve known this was a problem for awhile. I go to things like this filled with questions I want to ask the people running the business, and forget that most human interaction involves 2-way communication.  Last night, my friend and I were asking Nataly all sorts of questions, which was awesome because she’s really clear and articulate about what they’re doing and why. Plus, she’s funny. So I was having a blast until she asked, “So tell me about you guys…”  Which was a lovely, polite thing to do. But I realized that feel like such a dilettante in business settings admitting that I write memoir, and help other writers, too.  It just sounds sort of ridiculous to me when I’m around people who do REAL WORK – you know with office space and venture capital funding.

I mumbled something like, “I’m a writer,” and followed it with one of those, Enough about me, let’s talk more about you! smiles. Which is usually enough to get the conversation back on a more comfortable track.  But Nataly pushed for more information (which was so nice of her – it was pretty amazing that she had the bandwidth to care) and my friend said something about my prior career as a lawyer, how I’d left it because I was so unhappy, and how I’ve published two books and seem to be much happier now.

Nataly looked me straight in the eye with the steely glare of one woman calling out another on not living up to her potential and said, “You should tell people that. Seriously.”

I know that look. I’ve been on the delivery side of statements like that dozens of times. It’s been awhile since I’ve received it. But in that strange way that true encouragement works, her words prompted me to do better, to be better. I felt emboldened to be less of a squishy, undefined entity when I go to these things.  I have a career I love. Why is it so hard to admit that?

So thank you Nataly & the Happiness team.  Last night was an evening well spent, and indeed…it made us happier :)

If you want to learn more about this fun company, download the Happier app & find me. I’m under the super-secret name, “Trish Ryan.”  And check out Nataly’s Ted talk:

How The West Wing is helping me think about another NYTimes article

the-west-wing-cast-708368 Steve and I are in the midst of a two-week West Wing marathon.  I love the writing – plot, pacing, brilliant banter. It helps me think about the mixed reality of human life: how sometimes we win, but just as often we lose, either because we blow it or someone pulls some last minute stunt that changes things, or because our plan didn’t factor in some key element that turned out to be central. It’s kind of a crap shoot out here.

The show does a good job portraying how sometimes other people are wonderful and good and surprise us (I want Ainsely Hayes to move to images-2Cambridge and be my friend), but sometimes brilliance is best experienced from a distance (I don’t think I’d like Toby imagesZeigler, but I’d love to be in the room to watch him he craft a speech with his team.) People can be weirdly passionate about things we don’t understand (we just saw the episode where the “Carteogrophers for Social Equality” wanted to flip over maps to give countries in the southern hemisphere the experience of being on top), and sometimes they’re conniving and ruthless and mean (we’re at the point in Season 2 where the VP is about to make a power move on the Oval Office).

In all of this, I can’t decide if the show makes me long to be back in an office atmosphere – with shared goals, banter, and the tug-of-war that makes up each new day, or if it makes me want to hunker down with my dog because all of this unpredictability and humans colliding so exhausting.

This question in extra-sharp tension this morning because I read an article in the New York TimesThe Opt Out Generation Wants Back In – about how (as one of my Twitter friends put it) women are damed if we do (work) and damned if we don’t.  As I said on FB, my head is spinning.

I didn’t opt out of professional, go-to-an-office/receive a regular paycheck work for children. I opted out to publish books. And like children, my two memoirs were needy and demanding during the first few years, but after awhile they went out into the world to succeed or fail largely on their own, and all that was left was for me to decide: do I want to go back to “real” work (read: reliable, ordered, where there’s a schedule set by someone other than me), or try to produce another?

I have pages written of course. Scores of them. But publishing is in such chaos right now that almost any job looks like a oasis of security, a chance to superimpose some longed-for predictability over my days. But I wonder if this vision of greener grass is real?

I’m thinking about this today. And fending off the lie that office life (or any life) can be carefully scripted, or always filled with smart, funny people like CJ, Josh and Sam, every day spent tossing about witty banter in an atmosphere where it really is possible to save the world. As I look bad over my resume, I don’t recall any job being quite like that.

Have you noticed how in bullish seasons when the economy is on the upswing, news stories focus on how people are longing for more freedom, flexibility, room to explore? But in lean, bearish times the focus shifts to how wonderful it is to have two incomes, money in the bank, the promise of stability? The truth is, we want both. But I don’t think either can deliver everything we’re looking for.

(NOTE: As a Christian, I know that this is the point where I’m supposed to bring up Jesus, and how HE is the answer to everything we need. I know this because last year I met with a pastor I barely knew who told me, with a strange aggressive smile, that NO MATTER WHAT THE QUESTION IS, Jesus is the answer. All I could think was, Really? as I tried this out: What is my bra size? Jesus.  What is the population of St. Louis? Jesus. What do you want on your hot dog? Jesus. While this makes for an easy way to wrap up a blog post (or a counseling session) about life’s tough, confusing realities, Jesus is not “the answer” to every question. But I will say, it helps to have him around.)

Anyway…There are no easy answers. We muddle through. Prayer helps. As I read the Bible each morning I’m surprised again and again by what a kerfluffle life has always been, and how knowing God doesn’t work at all the way we think it will and so few of our definitions of things like “good” or “secure” or “happy” sync up with His. As I said to a friend the other night, “God and life are…interesting.” We just don’t know how anything will turn out.

The West Wing is helping me accept this, and take it one day at a time.