Your One Wild and Precious Life

“We magnify the places where we fail and refuse to catch ourselves being good.”  That’s what Rachel wrote in her comment to the “Courage” post, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  Why is it so easy to skewer ourselves (and others) but so much harder to focus on the positive?

I’m sure there are 1,652 theories out there on this one, but for now, let me start with the one that jumps out at me: insecurity. (“Well, if I can see how much I suck, then I can’t be all that bad.”)  Or maybe all this negativity has simply become our de facto communication style.  (Don’t toot your own horn lest you’re seen as a know-it-all.)   Because for all the awards and promotions we might have garnered in our lives, parenting remains the final frontier–the one arena where we’re never quite sure if we’re doing it right.  I could mess up a presentation at work, or post a lame, meandering entry on my blog (wait, I already have!) and yes, it kind of sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.  But when it comes to our kids, who knows which mistakes will scar them forever, turn them into knife-wielding psychopaths who want nothing to do with us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about my old writing workshops this past week.  (If you’ve never taken a writing workshop, just imagine any situation where you’ve put yourself and/or your creativity on the line, and you’ll get what I’m talking about.)  Most writing workshops are structured the following way: you go home and write something, Xerox enough copies so that your prof and classmates can read your work, mark it up and rip you to shreds, and then you come back the following week so you can sit and listen to the feedback (a.k.a. be crucified on the cross).  You might get some compliments, sure, but even if you’ve just written a kick-ass story, the second wave of comments are going to be nothing but critical.  (We call it constructive criticism.  Cough.)  Before you know it, the 5 (out of 20) people who liked your story will have quickly turned on you, saying inane things like, “Yeah, I have to agree with Maximillian on this one–I just don’t believe that your character would have nodded her head like that.”  Or “I don’t understand your character’s motivation,” as if any of us in real life ever fully understand our own motivations.  Thirty minutes later, you’ll limp out of the room like the invalid you’ve become, wondering how the hell you’re ever going to make it through this workshop, much less another day of your sucky life.

The next time you sit down to write, you’ll hear all those obnoxious/cranky/stuffy/jealous voices in your head, telling you loud and clear just how much you suck.  So you start writing to those voices, answering their questions as you go.  And you think, “Ah, I finally figured out the system.  There’s no way they can rip me another asshole this time!”  But of course they do.  They always do.

When I was in grad school, we called the type of stories that appeased everyone and made it through the final cut McStories.  After a while, we could spot them from a mile away–they were like paper cut-outs of the real thing, devoid of any life and meaning.  They’d been so sanded down and tempered by the workshop process that my friend Adam and I shuddered every time we read one.  Those writers had sold out, and we didn’t want to be like them.  We wanted to become better writers, of course, but we wanted to become better versions of ourselves, not better versions of some other author out there.

But here’s the thing: a lot of academic writing programs are set up to encourage this kind of conformity.  (As our entire society, in fact, champions McStory.)  It takes a pretty amazing teacher to a) rise above it and b) be able to manage the negative group think that invades the workshop process. It’s one of the reasons that I finally left academia: a) I didn’t want to inflict that kind of damage on all those young writers and b) it had become soul-crushing.

Around this time, I happened to take a writing workshop by Kathryn Black, a local writer (and more recently, psychotherapist) who wrote Mothering Without a Map.  The workshop was geared toward helping memoir writers put together a book proposal so we could sell our books.  (Something I’m currently working on–if you’ve got a great agent, send her my way!)  Anyway, Kathryn’s workshop floored me because it did something I’d never before experienced (and I’ve taken a lot of writing workshops): it was entirely organized around positive feedback.  That’s right.  We weren’t allowed to rip anyone a new one.  What we did instead was act as a mirror for the writer, pointing out the themes or images that moved us, talking about what they wrote affected us.  (By the way, Kathryn teaches a great workshop about mothering based on similar principles. Click on her name above for details.)

At first, I thought this was hooey.  After all, I’d just spent three years in grad school getting my ass kicked, then turned around and taught a somewhat-nicer (I hoped) version myself.  I simply didn’t know there was any other way.

But something amazing started happening.  Instead of leaving the workshop feeling like shit, we left hopeful, and encouraged.  We began to listen to (and respect) the comments we were getting from our fellow writers precisely because they were respectful themselves.  Like little search lights, their comments showed us when we’d hit the mark, or gently highlighted a theme we’d just begun to articulate.  And ever so slowly, we began to trust in ourselves again.  To trust our vision and our intuition, not the vision some other writer might have had for our story.  (By the way, my friend Adam just published his first book, This New and Poisonous Air to strong acclaim.  Check it out–his stories are dark, imaginative, funny and powerful.  Anything but McStory.)

These days, I run my own writing workshops the same way, based on the positive feedback model that Kathryn introduced and other writers have helped me expand on.  And it’s been liberating.  Especially since a lot of the workshops I do these days are geared toward helping women reclaim themselves.  God knows that we’ve all been shut down enough from regular life, but once parenthood hits, you’re suddenly swirling in a much larger identity crisis-kind-of-mess.  We’re all trying to find our way out, so why would I want to torture another human being the way I was once tortured in my old writing workshops?

Which brings me back to our original question.  Why do we continue to torture ourselves every time we make a mistake?  When do we finally give ourselves a break?  Loosen the chains of McStory, and start living our own lives.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day

New and Selected Poems


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