Forging ahead or just forging?

Nadia ComaneciDuring a gymnastics workout when I was thirteen years old, my coach sent me away from the larger group on the uneven bars to practice on my own on the balance beam. I was trying to perfect my side aerial (cartwheel with no hands), by starting out on the less-terrifying floor beam (before making my way to the totally terrifying high beam).

On the floor beam, I attempted aerial after aerial but was completely unable to stay on the beam after the landing. I’d get my left foot on solid, then my right foot behind the left, just as solid. But as I lifted my chest up, arms over my head, I would lose my balance in this very sudden, jerky way, and fall off. It was such an irregular pattern of movement you’d think it could not possibly repeat itself. But each time, after each landing, my body would do the same motion, and I’d fall off on the same side of the beam every time. Watching it must have been like rewinding a video and hitting play, rewinding again, hitting play. Same thing with no variation.

I did this until my left leg was weak, until my face was red with frustration, until I was flipping in mid-air with tears streaming down my face. I was appalled with myself and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. My solution was to forge ahead, to not stop, to go and go. I was determined.

During this whole episode which lasted about 40 minutes, my coach would yell over now and again, telling me to “go work on something else,” “go to floor, work on your standing back flip,” “get some water, practice your leaps.” I ignored him. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. He finally walked over, took me by the forearm, and led me to the water fountain, then sat me down. “You need to learn when to take a break,” he said, looking right into my eyes. “Now go practice your leaps. You can come back to beam after that.”

I am now forty-two years old and on day #9 of my writing residency. It was only yesterday, after toiling away at a chapter in my memoir that I’ve been toiling away at for almost an entire week, that this memory surfaced. As I organize and reorganize, copy and paste, move this paragraph there and that one to the end, I know that I’m not getting anywhere. Yet I want to keep forging ahead (which really means I just want to keep forging, there’s no “ahead” about it), to go and go until I have devolved into a mess behind a desk (or maybe curled up under the desk).

I have not yet devolved, but I have been nursing a ball of anxiety in my stomach every time I sit down at the computer and open the file. Another resident and new friend here at VCCA calls it “the sick place.” Here here.

As counter-intuitive as it feels, I know I need to take my coach’s decades-old advice. I need to take a break. Get a drink of water. Go practice my leaps. If I’m not careful, I could spend my whole month just moving paragraphs around, never finding a stance solid enough to stay on the beam, so to speak.

Incidentally, when I returned to the balance beam back in 1985 and tried my aerial again, I stuck it the very first time. I glanced over at my coach who was setting up mats for our end-of-work-out tumbling passes to see if he’d caught it. He smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. I half-smiled. Only half because I was embarrassed he’d been right. Again.

I don’t have a coach anymore, but I have creative friends and mentors who I talk to in times of distress (and success). And they have to remind me that we can get into unproductive grooves that are impossible to get out of except by simply walking away, distracting ourselves with something else, returning to the task at hand only after we’ve had some time to find ourselves again. Do what feels good, they tell me. Enjoy the views of the landscape where you are. Read and rest and rejuvenate. Whatever I produce, they remind me, however many pages this month turns out, will be just fine.

Pictured above is, of course, the Romanian legend, Nadia Comaneci.

The Visitation


This is my second full day at the Virginia Center of Creative Arts. I’m here, ostensibly, to work on my memoir. While I’ve napped, read, ordered facial cleanser online, talked to the cows that block the colony’s long driveway, as well as chatted with some of the other writers and artists who are here, I haven’t yet dug into the work. Instead, I’ve spent most of my time obsessing…about spiders. Wolf spiders specifically. (I was going to include a pic of one, but I couldn’t bear it.)

A whole village of them infiltrated my studio my first night here. I’m sure there’s some metaphor I could drum up about this potentially auspicious event, this arachnid visitation, but mostly the spiders are big and hairy and scary, and while Maintenance Mike seems to have solved the issue, after sundown I scan the area by the utility closet door every two minutes or so. They’d first entered individually, then in couples, then three at a time. Every time I turned around, more spiders. Mike told me that it’s the ones that aren’t hairy that I have to watch out for. I think he said this in an attempt to make me feel better, but it just got me thinking about other, more dangerous spiders that might be lurking in the closet.

It’s true that I’m scared of spiders. I’m also scared of what I’ve been given this month of November: time and space and quiet, three meals a day, peaceful views, and the company of other writers and artists with whom, ideally, I get to talk about art and books and the creative process. It’s easier to fixate on spiders than to feel the sometimes-scary emptiness of the days spread ahead of me. I know, I know: It’s heaven, it’s amazing, it’s a gift. All true. But for someone who hasn’t yet mastered the art of relaxation, or time management, or good old-fashioned routine, the gift feels daunting. The gift is a big wolf spider. (There’s the metaphor!) The gift is this enormous desk I have for the month. The trick is that in order for this whole gift thing to work in my favor I have to sit at it even when I don’t want to, even when what I’d sometimes rather do is pick up my heavy, black Dansko clog and smash it.

Lucky You!

One of the many great things about getting to be here for nearly a month is coming home and, along with seeing my friends, getting to hold this beautiful 2013 issue of Alligator Juniper, a national, award-winning literary magazine, in my hands, and to see “Lucky Charms,” an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, in its pages (ORDER A COPY OF THE MAGAZINE HERE for only 10 bucks!).

Read this great interview with founding editor (as well as dear friend and mentor) Melanie Bishop in which she discusses the new issue, how the magazine got started (I worked on the very first issue SEVENTEEN years ago!), and the unique process for how the magazine is produced (through a course at Prescott College).

Having worked on the very first issue, I of course said yes when the managing editor Skye Anicca asked for work so she could include it in a special inaugural section called “Shaping Grace: Women’s Perspectives” along with an interview (an interview?! I’ve never been interviewed before…).

Here’s the second paragraph of “Lucky Charms,” which chronicles the first half of a geographic (and emotionally harrowing) move I made in 1997 to go to graduate school:

“On this trip I don’t drink after seven months of not…or take too many pills (though I think about it). I drive alone across the country in an oversized Ryder moving truck. From point A—the dry, haunted landscape of the Southwest, where cacti produce blooms that look like sea creatures, and the star-strewn sky makes me forget my own name—to point B—a balmy, vine-choked town in the Deep South where the air will smell like magnolia and old beer, and the cockroaches I smash as they skitter across my new living room floor will force me to ask myself what have I done deciding to come here.”

And an excerpt from the interview:

“Not sure what writing has taught me about courage exactly. I guess it’s taught me to wield a mighty sword in the face of the ‘I suck at this’ voice and the ‘I’m not nearly as good as [fill in name of much more successful writer here, like one that actually has a book published].’ Wasted time!

The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we invite our demons in for tea. My impulse is to conk them on the head, one after the other, and drag the bodies into the bushes. Whatever it takes I guess.”

I am proud to be published in AJs pages—along with other amazing creative nonfiction and fiction writers, poets, and photographers(!). Again, the issue is only $10 (!!!), and you should buy it! Along with getting to read the rest of my essay and interview, you’ll get to read pieces by Alix Ohlin (along with an interview), Natalie Singer, Judith Barrington, Allan Peterson, and many more.

You can feel good about supporting the future of a literary magazine as well as the experience of the undergraduates who staff it (the experience was invaluable to me as a writer as well as the ways in which it has influenced my professional life and my contributions to the arts) and the recent graduates who work for very little to produce this gorgeous journal.

You should also know that Alligator Juniper has consistently supported new and emerging writers and artists (i.e., this is the very first publication for Esther Welsh, the winner of the national contest in fiction, whose story will haunt you to the end of your days), and puts serious time into responding to every single artist. Their rejections—and I have been rejected by them—honestly feel like prizes in and of themselves.


The Big Wait

In the winter of 2003, I was renting a room in a creaky house in the Hudson Valley. I hadn’t planned on staying in the area when my seasonal job ended, but I also hadn’t planned on going anywhere else. So there I was. Thirty-one years old. Experiencing my first Northeastern February, and in the midst of a near-debilitating depression.

There was an explanation. A lot of them. I was recovering from a whole bunch of stuff–years of avoidance and cravings and pretending everything was just fine when it could not have been less so. The one thought I kept circling back to was this: maybe if I could write something, if I could recapture that clarity of purpose I had when I was writing poetry in grad school, I could find my way to Feeling Better.

In hindsight, I see how ridiculous this hypothesis was. I was in critical condition. Just six months before, I’d been at the bottom of rock bottom; thankfully, I had the wherewithal to seek help. It was just taking way too long for the help to help. But I was awake. I wasn’t numbing myself or getting drunk or getting lost in another person. I was sitting in my rocking chair listening to the iced-over branches outside my window click-clack against each other.


I have a big smile. I laugh easily and deeply and even in the worst of times I’ve been able to access that capacity. It’s one of the gifts of being a Didyk. (No matter how hard it got as a family, always we’d find ourselves, somehow, laughing. Hard. Some silly dance my dad did. A raucous game of Trivial Pursuit. My sister’s uncanny impersonation of Janis Joplin, complete with air guitar.) But in the winter of 2003, for the second time in my life, I’d lost my capacity. I wasn’t smiling. I wasn’t laughing. I was losing my grip. I know now that I had to lose it in order to re-position myself.

I tried to write anyway. Poems. Short stories. But I had no follow through. I couldn’t focus long enough to make sense. My  relationship with my mind was unsteady and unfriendly. So finally, I wrote about the only thing I could write about.

I described my depression as a black prehistoric bird whose angular face and alien-yellow beak I never saw but whose wings I’d hear coming as soon as morning crossed over into afternoon. I wrote about what I called “the Big Wait”:

I feel like all I am doing is waiting, waiting for the flapping creature to clasp the neck of my robe with its talons and take me.

I wrote that I wished it would just go ahead and fucking grab me. End the Big Wait. There’d be relief in that at least, wouldn’t there? No more waiting for the thing I feared most. It would finally just be happening. In the bathroom, I’d ponder the nail polish remover. Prescription medications that weren’t mine. Ponder and ponder. Back-ups. In case.


I couldn’t see the future then. I couldn’t even imagine it. Didn’t want to. I felt too terrible. To imagine the future was to think about all the days between now and then that I’d be feeling just like this. I was living in the unbearable excruciating now.

If you’d told me that in ten years I’d be sitting in a light-filled, brightly colored studio apartment in Western Massachusetts writing a blog post about that very year, about the bird, about the Big Wait, and that I wouldn’t be feeling terrible anymore, that I’d be working in a book store, teaching creative writing, supporting myself, writing my own book, and feeling pretty great about being here, alive, on the earth,  no way I’d have believed you. More than that, I wouldn’t have cared. Ten years from now, I would have told you, is ten years from now. It isn’t now.

But now it is now. I’m  in the future, writing in the past tense about that unbearable time. Past tense, people! I’ve thought to organize a parade for being able to write about that time while no longer being in it. One of the women who helped me back then told me that if I hung in there, if I kept getting the help I needed, if I just waited and stayed alive in the meantime, I’d one day be able to say to myself “Wow, remember that time? Remember how hard that was. I can’t believe I got through that.” “I swear to you,” she said, then, putting her hand on top of my head, “You’ll look back. I promise.”

I didn’t know then a promise’s power. I understand it now. Because I did wait. I hung in there. And I can write all these years later: I remember that time, I remember how hard it was, and I’m here now looking back.

When You Are Too Afraid to Do What You Really Want…

Earlier this summer, I got an email from a fellow writer who expressed a desire to make a change in her life. Here’s the last line of her email:

Is there any advice you could give to someone just starting out, someone sick of boring office jobs and struggling to find a way into a creative life?

Yes, yes I do.

First, a quick story: When I was 19, I decided to quit college and follow the Grateful Dead. It wasn’t an easy decision. Other than it being a pretty bad idea, I had parents who cared what I was up to. I had a journalism major to finish. I had no money. But I’d been invited by the coolest people on Earth, a group of hippies who’d befriended me at a local bar. The night they extended their invitation, I floated out of the bar, high on being wanted. But by the time I got to my dorm, I was beset by reality.

I couldn’t possibly say yes.

A few nights later, sitting on my desk in the dark with Dark Side of the Moon on repeat,  I searched for a more hopeful sentence than “I can’t say yes.” Like maybe just: “yes.”  I wanted to be like other people, like my new cool friends. I even hated them a little for how free they seemed.

Then up and out of Pink Floyd’s ominous guitar waves rose these lyrics:

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

It was true: I was young. And life was long. One day, long would be over, and I’d be looking back on it all.

I cried for awhile. Then something happened. In the gap between “Time” and “The Great Gig in the Sky” I heard the voice inside. And it was loud. Go, it said. Be free. Be “other people.”

So I went.

I be’d.

It was one of the more important decisions I’ve made in my life, not because following the Dead was the best idea in the world but because the decision to do so was my own.

I didn’t want to be the person who was too afraid, who was an emotional coward. And I still don’t.

So yes, I have some advice. Some things to consider…


  1. Stay inspired. Music, writing, trees, graffiti. Whatever it takes for you. This will be your fire and your mettle. Hunt it down.  Then use it.
  2. Keep a vision in your head of what you want your life to look like, how you want to feel. Be patient. You will know when to make your move.
  3. Remember: this is your life. Your life. Any time you spend thinking about where you’re not, who you’re not, what talent you don’t have, the magnitude of the rejection and failure that may befall you in art or in love, you are wasting your life.
  4. Be brave. You will like yourself and other people so much more if you do this.
  5. If you need help, ask for it. I asked for help at one of the darkest and most undignified moments of my life. Help helps. For reals. Avail yourself of it. When you give people the opportunity to help you,  it will make them feel good about themselves and their lives.
  6. When you meet a person you both admire and hate (just a little), it’s probably because they are doing something you want to be doing but aren’t. Observe him or her. Breathe in that little bit of hate—there’s information in it for you. Then: approach that person, be sincere and confess your admiration. When sincerity flies out of you it eventually flies back, like a boomerang.
  7. Become a person that someone else both admires and hates (it will feel good, I swear). Being on the other side of that confession, that sincerity, will make you want to kiss the ground.
  8. No matter how far along you are on your admirable and hateful path, there will be others behind you. Never forget where you started. Make it your creative duty to help them. They need you.
  9. Some people need to stop and sit on their sofa and finally just feel what they are feeling, or else it will be hard to move forward and create new things and grow in important ways. Some people need to stop doing that. Get clear about which “some people” you are. I sat on a lot of sofas and did a lot of feeling-my-emotions for a lot of years. When the clouds parted, I had to get up and go see what was happening out there.
  10. Go. Be free. Be other people. Show us all it’s possible.

Staying the Course: When Your Creative Project Isn’t at All What You Thought

When I started writing my book in earnest many months ago, I thought: Fun. Exciting. No problem. I’ll be writing about my own life. How hard could it be? I’ve written about it before. A lot.

I assumed (presumed? hoped?) the book would evolve smoothly, that if I did what I tell my students to do, if I just wrote, if I put words and more words on the page, the through-line would appear as inevitably as the sunrise; the book’s structure would reveal itself—almost magically, with little or no effort. The book would become its own gorgeous, self-sufficient animal—my only job would be to guide it along, harness it as needed.

Of course saying all this to you now, I hear it: It’s ridiculous.

I’d guess that most people who embark on a creative endeavor have some version of this experience. You think you’ve actually begun to write/paint/create whatever the “it” is. And then you realize you are really just beginning the part that comes before the beginning.

My “book” has become an animal to be sure—less powerful grizzly bear with a wild and shimmering coat, more ailing octopus, tentacles intact but its massive mantel slowly caving in on itself.

It turns out not to be an easy thing to back-track through a life—its whys and what fors—the rocky moments and the even rockier ones. To make sense of it all. For the material to produce something revelatory, for me, the writer.

One reason why beginning students (and more experienced ones, apparently, such as the one writing this blog post) can get discouraged quickly is that once the obstacle of “getting started” is overcome, a whole new set of issues can come to the fore: self-doubt, for example. Fear of rejection. Fear of being really bad at it.

I used to think about creative projects the same way I thought about life: It’ll just…happen. I won’t actually have to be there when it happens. I will be someone else…I’ll be that brilliant writer person who knows what she’s doing.

I know a little more than I used to, which means, mostly, that I know how much I don’t know.

Now that I’m over the shock of having a floppy, slippery invertebrate on my desk rather than a strong, fierce mammal of a book, I’m in a better position than I was six months ago lounging in the comfort of my naivete.

I’m not hopeful anymore. I’m awake.

Hopeful is precarious, and relatively easier (cross your fingers, hold your breath, and hope for the best).

Awake is a state you can’t argue with, and more difficult.

On the other hand, to use a scale that dips and rises between “easy” and “difficult,” is to use the wrong kind of scale, the wrong units of measure. It’s less about measuring, more about staying the course, being a grown-up, becoming brave enough to go within and let go of where you’re going. You have to have chops.

This isn’t news. And it doesn’t just apply to writing projects. Being hard on one’s self, creating under the pall cast by perfectionism, is, in some ways, to lack courage, it’s to dig one’s heels in and resist moving forward into open waters where what you make can turn out to be bad, or mediocre, or really, really good.

If I already knew what I needed to say in my book, if I had clear direction, I wouldn’t struggle as much, wouldn’t have anxiety, or doubt myself  or my abilities or my point.

But I also wouldn’t bother.

My book is an octopus. It has no spine for narrative muscles to wrap themselves around. Yet. The octopus, according to Wikipedia, is “the most intelligent and behaviorally flexible of all invertebrates.”

So I will do as I say: I will put words and more words on the page. I will stay the course. I will cultivate chops. I will undig my heels and float into open water. The book will become its own gorgeous, self-sufficient animal—with a spine.

Or it will become the healthiest, most beautiful octopus ever.

All the Time in the World

The other night I was feeling anxious. Not totally unheard of. Happens less than it used to, but it happens.

I’ve learned through experience that when you are in the moment of anxiety, it’s best to wait until the anxiety passes to dig into reasons (and reason). The first order of business is to calm the self.

Once I remembered that, I took slow deep breaths, I laid flat on my back spread-eagle on the bed, I played Flick and Fly on my phone to distract me (I swear, this can work). I ended up, however, embarking on ten minutes of walking meditation instead.

I’m not going to lie. I hardly ever do this. But I was desperate.

As I moved, slowly but mostly distracted (my version of meditation, when I do it, almost always includes being mostly distracted), I remembered an exercise from a movement improv class decades ago, the 100-year Walk:

Walk from point A to point B—you have 100 years to make this journey.

It took just a couple of steps for the familiar feeling to come back: the comforting gravity of all the time in the world.

It takes some physical experimentation to lift a foot without falling over, to make breathing a helper, to slow down, and then slow down some more, and then slow down even more. One…………hundred……….years.

The more I slowed my physical body, the faster my insides whirred (I don’t mean my thoughts, but my inner body, my cells, that strange no-place place where anxiety lives).

As it turns out, I’ve trained both my bodies to get to where they need to go, and quickly. I ramped up this training regimen last year when the loud gong of my fortieth birthday rang out across the land.

Must. Make. Progress.
Must. Publish. Book.
Must. Earn. My. Existence.
Must. Get There. Faster.

When I slowed my physical body down during the 100-year Walk, it made me see how utterly crazy I can get on the inside, an antsy, can’t-sit-still feeling that I’m behind…in life. It’s true, that in moments I find myself harboring a belief in finitude, that there are a certain number of available units—success units, publish-your-book units, have a wonderful-relationship-that-leads-to-marriage units. The fastest people get first dibs. In my mind it plays out like an Easter egg hunt with a lot of greedy grown-ups (I being one of them).

A finite amount of money.

A finite amount of husbands and love and caffeine.

A finite amount of everything I need to continue supporting myself.

The universe, in other words, is a stationary, static landscape, and this trail that I’m on is the wrong trail. And there’s a different one I’m supposed to be on. If I can just find it, and stay on it, I’ll live the life I’m supposed to be living (one that includes at least my share of units).

I don’t *really* believe this. I know it’s a lie. That there’s no life parallel to mine that I’m supposed to be living. My life is my life. On my bad days though, there is an undeniable meanness I can exact on myself. I wake up and think: You better write. You better write faster. You better get on track. You better get moving. You better figure it out. It’s my own long, wagging finger, but it feels sometimes like a divine Truth Teller paying a visit. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Zen teacher Cheri Huber says the following about self-hate: “It’s like being on a journey and being completely lost, going in the wrong direction but making really good time.” And I would add: and as your walking in the wrong direction, there’s a big, confident, wagging finger scolding your every move.

The antidote then is the 100-year Walk: I am on a journey. I’m moving in the right direction. And I have all the time I could ever need. (Say these sentences out loud and I swear your shoulders will lower about three inches.)

More 100-year Walks are therefore in order…since where I’m going isn’t as important as how I’m going there (very slowly in this case).

The Post about How an Arabesque on a Balance Beam Saved My Life

I love this picture. You can’t tell from the image, but under my right foot is a balance beam, four-inches wide, four feet high. I have other more spectacular pictures, mid-air, mid-flip, at the apex of a no-handed cartwheel. But when I look at this one, I remember, really remember, what it felt like. To be in that body, to be thirteen—having all the horrible and complicated feelings that rain down on a girl as she walks through that gate into her teen years. All the inner conflict. Too many vices to choose from. Too many awkward longings and cravings. To have all of that. But to also have this. This near-perfect arabesque on a four-inch beam that I felt like I could hold forever (and would have if I could have).

Once I stretched my leg back and up toward the ceiling, locked my standing leg into balance, and found a spot on the beam on which to rest my gaze, my insides stopped: My mind’s worried mess. The anxious tug in my chest. The guilt that choked my stomach back then. All of it, all of me, floated in a silent, immense, kinesthetic pause. I was both purely me and not me at all. I was arabesque, I was beam, I was leg and air and chalk and muscle. I wasn’t girl but body. I wasn’t brown-haired and blue-eyed, but serious, wise, perfect.

When presence becomes an escape, you know you’ve hit the mark.

My daily life as a grown-up, as brown-haired and blue-eyed and utterly imperfect, is spent in search of more and more instances of this—in someone or something, in some sound or flora or fauna or song, in something bigger and braver than me.

Last Friday I met a painting—bigger and braver than me to be certain. I had just turned my back on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” too familiar to be impressive, and there it was. No crowd. No camera flashes. Just museum air between me and the painting. I’d never seen it before. Not anywhere.

Because I was new to it, the escape came easy. The pause. The presence. When I look at it even tonight, several days and degrees of separation later, it still happens:

Gustav Klimt’s “The Park”

I can’t explain it any more than that. And you might not feel it. It takes what it takes for each of us. And last Friday, this is all that it took. Certainly a painting is not an arabesque on a beam. It’s not exertion of the body. But it’s still a body of a sort—it still stills the body, the body experiencing it well before the mind.

This Saturday, it may be the bins of greens at the farmer’s market, the pints of peaches and plums. Or just a rare moment when the vents outside my apartment window stop their hums and whirs and rattles, and all I’ll hear is the silence that is out there, and the quiet that is in here. And I’ll breathe it in. I’ll pause.

The Post about Narrative Persona, the New Name for My Blog, and What They Both Have to Do with Dog Food Commercials

Q: Why the title “By Her Own Lights”?

A: I’ve been reading Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative, and she uses two different permutations of that phrase in the first 60 or so pages of the book.

Q: A writer’s tick, perhaps?

A: Something like that. A good tick to have tho, I think. The first time she uses it is in reference to herself:

I began to see that in the course of daily life when, by my own lights, I act badly—confrontational, challenging, dismissive—I am out there on that raft before I have found the narrator who can bring under control the rushing onslaught of my own internal flux.

She uses the phrase to express self-implication (actually, the narrative persona she’s created for The Situation and the Story, a book about the importance of creating a narrative persona, uses the phrase). When left to her truest, her most intimate and unbridled self, she can and will be (among other things I presume) confrontational, challenging, and dismissive.

Q: So what does “by her own lights” have to do with narrative persona and dog food commercials?

A: In life when you have no narrative persona, no distance from your own instincts and reactions (ie, “by my own lights”)… it’s like one of those dog food commercials, where we are behind the eyes of the dog, we are the dog…hungry, sniffing like a maniac for food, so we can eat, so we can survive (and forget about it if someone or something gets in our way).

When you have a narrative persona (an effective one), he or she has a distance and a perspective that’s helpful and illuminating (i.e., “by her own lights”), you’re the “her” standing behind the dog holding the leash. You decide if and when it's best for her to eat. Psychotherapists call this the "witness." In Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now he tells the story of his spiritual awakening which comes via a statement “I cannot live with myself any longer,” followed by a question (and I’m paraphrasing), Who is the “I” that can’t live with “myself”?

A more succinct version: When you ask “Who am I?” who is the “I” that is asking?

In the context of essay and memoir writing, this might be the difference between writing in/from your anxiety, and writing about the person you are when you are anxious—being the dog versus being the owner of the dog.

Q: You mentioned a second use of the “lights” phrase in Gornick’s book?

A: Yes, she refers back to two writers she’s quoted earlier in the book—Sebastian Krim and Jean Amery:

Central to both Krim and Amery was that each one considered himself a failure because neither—by his own lights—had engaged with his own deepest self.

Despite their semi-abhorrent personalities, these two men, or their narrative personae anyway, have some semblance of a conscience (and consciousness), distance enough to consider the reader in their tellings, to be “real” with themselves and with us. And there’s honor in this.

Q: Does this excuse them from being reputedly unpalatable people off the page?

A: No, but I’m not concerned about who they are off the page. I’m concerned with how we create narrative personae (and the benefits for both writer and reader). And, most importantly, getting help with my own writing.

Q: So it’s purely self-interest [laughs]?

A: Yup. I (non-persona “I”) have been struggling with writing my capital “B” Book (a.k.a. my capital “M” Memoir), so I’ve been paying close attention to Gornick’s assertions. About a month ago, I got a good running start on the Book, two straight weeks of diligent daily writing. As I collected days and pages, I felt heavier each time I sat down to work.

I attributed this to the material—none of it that scandalous, but none of it super uplifting either. It’s not pleasant re-inhabiting a younger clueless version of myself—especially because I know what comes next and how ill-prepared that younger self is for what’s to come. It’s cringe-worthy. Embarrassing. Etc.

Even so, as I continued to write through the heaviness, I felt good, not about the project itself, but that I’d managed to write despite the heaviness. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t sustain it. When you work out at the gym, it’s hard at first, then it gets easier, and feels good. I was just feeling worse and worse.

Then I read this in Gornick’s book about creating her first successful narrative persona:

I longed each day to meet up again with her, this other one telling the story that I alone—in my everyday person—would not be able to tell. Such a respite from the me that was me!…she had become the instrument of my illumination.

Q: How did it feel to read that?

A: A little envious, but mostly it inspired me. Kind of like being in a bummer relationship. If you’ve only ever been in a bummer relationship, you don’t realize that there are other kinds. If writing has only ever been hard and painstaking and somewhat torturous, you can go on assuming that’s the deal, and you spend most of your time battling that part of writing rather than exploring the alchemical potential of your material, of story, of image.

I’m determined to find that persona whom I look forward to meeting up with every day. Gornick’s assertion has become so large and attractive (and reassuring) that it’s shaken the shoulder of some new (or perhaps merely long-sleeping) narrator in me, who I hope will be able “to bring under control the rushing onslaught of my own internal flux.”

Q: What does all of this have to do with the new name of your blog?

A: At first I thought I’d use the phrase as my own silent thesis, but then I decided: Use it. Spend it. Now. On the blog.

To do something “by my own lights” means I’m muddling through something under the insufficient light of my own abilities (a.k.a. two lights are better than one, a.k.a. [only] by my own dimly-lit lights, a.k.a. with an insufficient narrative persona). BUT it also means I’m living by the light of my own experiences, strengths, choices—under the guidance of a strong, undamaged, fearless persona, who, hopefully, is also an excellent writer and storyteller. I’m hoping the blog, under that title, will be a vehicle for developing “her.”

That’s what. So…here we go.

The Post about Writing a Letter to “Dear Abby” When I Was 13 Years Old

In the summer of 1985, I met and fell in teenage-love with a boy named Shane. He was two years my senior (since I was 13 at the time of our meeting, this meant he was dangerously older). Plus, he played piano—not boring classical stuff. But jazz. Funk. Music with notes that made room for his heart-crushing voice. And with that voice he sang love songs. To me. Like really sang, people. Soul. Full.

Shane lived in the Bay Area, two hours north of where I lived, so we only ever saw each other in person a few times in the year or so after we met. Because long-distance phone bills were an actual “thing” then, we wrote letters. His were my first love letters, so I’ve kept them. He addressed each one thus: “Dear Blue Eyes.”

He wrote sentences like: “I wouldn’t be happy if you didn’t exist.”
And: “I wrote this poem for you but I couldn’t get the word ‘friends’ to work so I used ‘love,’ I hope you don’t mind.”
And: “I wanted to say I loved you when we said good bye, but I didn’t want to put you in a spot.”

I had never been so courted. I don’t doubt now that Shane had a gaggle of girlfriends at 15, 16 years old, adorable as he was. But he made me feel like I was the only one. Life would get more complicated and more heartbreaking after that. But later, even now, here in the future, it’s because of Shane that I still believe in the magic of midnight, in the pull of a half-full moon, and the influence that only California stars can have on two teenagers who decide they will, for one hour, stop time with the power of the electric air between them.

In 1986, Shane sent me a photo of himself (after I sent one of me). It’s black and white. He’s wearing a black windbreaker, his head tilted down, his eyes looking up at the camera. His hand is behind his head checking his short afro, maybe tamping it down in the back. Epitome of cool. After I got this picture, my favorite heart-wrenching exercise was to play Prince’s new album Under the Cherry Moon and gaze at this picture.

One of the times before we were going to see each other, I must have needed someone to talk to about the singular obvious difference between black him and white me.

I honestly can’t remember what my concerns were. My parents were liberal ex-hippies and most of their friends were liberal ex-hippies. In the context of my spiritual upbringing, race was a non-issue. I must have been keenly aware that this was the first boy I’d liked who was not white and I wanted to acknowledge it openly to someone who was not my parents.

So, and I have no good explanation for why I did this, I wrote to Dear Abby. I read her column often—conveniently located as it was opposite the comics and abutted by Linda Goodman’s horoscopes. I liked Abby’s confident style, her imperatives, how she told people exactly what to do. If she thought they were out of line, or in trouble, she’d tell them so and suggest different actions in order to get out of that trouble.

Probably, I just thought it would be cool to write her a letter, see if she’d respond. And what better issue to write her about than INTERRACIAL RELATIONSHIP (!).

I don’t have the letter I wrote her (bad archivist!) but I still have the original one that she wrote me in response:

“THAT is when your trouble will begin” … So true in regards to anyone you fall in love with—depending, of course, on how you define trouble. Shane and I never got to prove or disprove Abby’s theory—I think I developed a crush on a local boy who would never like me back, and my family moved to Baltimore the following year where I fell for men of all kinds (some of them dangerously older, some of them just plain dangerous).

If only Abby knew that at 13 I was already on a track that would take me far outside the purview of her column and that Shane, who, incidentally, had white parents, already understood a little something—probably more than she did—about the actual ways of the world. Would she have written a different letter? What would she have said? Would it have helped?